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I'll tell you something: Looking beyond our ‘in group’ could help us overcome unconscious bias

12 Dec 2019 By Stephen Frost

Deliberately surrounding ourselves with people who are different could hold the key to our divided society, says Stephen Frost

Most of us claim to be in favour of diversity but, to be truly inclusive, we first have to look deep inside ourselves – and we have to be honest about what we find. If we reflected on our closest friends or colleagues, partner or neighbours, would we find that we liked diversity as much as we profess? What would this ‘in group’ tell us about our real attitudes to diversity?

The world over, in various cultures, environments and countries, we tend to prefer sameness to difference. This phenomenon is called homophily and is natural and normal to human beings.  If you have a relatively homogenous in-group, you are like 90 per cent of the population – your in-group looks pretty much like you, not just in terms of demographics such as race, but in such varied areas as political leanings, alcohol preference and sense of humour.

As a concept, that is great and should be celebrated. We need space to be ourselves, relax and find commonalities with people, norms and protocols that require no deep understanding or effort. But in a professional context, homogenous in-groups can be dangerous. 

In business, while we rely on the conscious part of our brains to make reasoned judgements and decisions, a lot of the time we are still subject to the unconscious part of our brain. The problem with this is that it allows bias free reign and doesn’t challenge our decision-making sufficiently.

If we surround ourselves with different people from our ‘out group’, this will generally counteract bias and assumptive thinking, all of which is in our own professional interest as it calibrates our unconscious thinking, covers blind spots and brings new perspectives to light. This doesn’t have to mean major change. There are everyday examples of how it can work, such as consulting someone who doesn’t drink when planning a staff social event, or asking someone with access requirements when choosing a venue. How can you consciously step into someone else’s shoes to see the decision from their perspective and better calibrate the decision you are about to make?

The subject of in-groups is more important than ever because, as professionals, we are stressed and becoming overwhelmed. At times of stress, we revert to unconscious decision-making and retreat to what we already (think we) know, despite being paid to deploy conscious reasoning. So we face a choice. Either train our own brains to make better decisions – which is possible, but hard – or surround ourselves with as much difference as possible and let other people do it for us. Including our out-group is in our professional self-interest.

As HR professionals, we have a greater responsibility than most to use our expertise and insights to benefit not only ourselves and our organisations, but also the wider world. And we only need to look at the news to see why this matters so much. Brexit is a polarising issue, up there with Trump, immigration and football rivalry. It shows we ignore our out-groups at our peril: most Londoners who voted to remain in the EU didn’t imagine that others would be so passionate about leaving, just as most Democrats didn’t believe so many ‘natural’ Democrat voters in the US rust belt would vote Trump.

To avoid further social segregation – not just politically, but technologically on Facebook and Twitter, and socially in our communities – we need to become aware of who is not in our in-group and reach out to them. That could mean talking to the neighbours, joining a new social group or celebrating a different festival. But if we don’t proactively and consciously include, we will unconsciously exclude. And ultimately, none of us want to live in such a divided society.  

Stephen Frost is author of Building An Inclusive Organization and founder of Frost Included

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