While unconscious bias training is a critical and necessary component of an organisation’s efforts for developing inclusive work settings, companies committed to inclusion can also draw upon inclusion nudges – evidence-based approaches drawn from the social psychological literature for reducing bias, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination.
Developing inclusive work settings that support self-worth, promote employee well-being, offer opportunities for positive intergroup contact, and encourage and reward pro-equality norms, support unconscious bias training and encourage the transfer of knowledge and skills acquired in training to the workplace.
Reducing Bias Through Self-Affirming Workplaces
Affinity bias is our tendency to favour our own social group (ingroup) more than groups of which we are not a member (outgroups). Studies show that, in general, people extend greater trust, positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to ingroup members compared with outgroup members. Affinity bias discourages intergroup contact, perpetuates negative stereotypes, and is linked to prejudice and discrimination.
What is so striking about affinity bias is that it can occur when there is no real difference between two groups, no competitive struggle over scarce resources, nor any threat to the ingroup’s survival. In the 1970s and early 1980s, in a series of famous experiments, Henri Tajfel demonstrated that even an arbitrary allocation of people (for example, by the toss of a coin) to different groups caused ‘us versus them’ distinctions and triggered ingroup bias.
Because affinity bias can occur in the absence of competition or threat, Tajfel theorised that it results from a universal human motivation to maintain a high regard for the self. Group membership is an important source of one’s self-esteem; we can boost our self-esteem by associating with high-status groups, by distancing ourselves from low-status groups, and by boosting the relative status of our ingroup compared with outgroups. Affinity bias is one of the ways in which we affirm our self-worth.
Tajfel’s theory is supported by a large number of studies. Research shows that when self-esteem is threatened, the tendency for prejudice increases. Also, when individuals who have suffered a loss of self-esteem, for example, after receiving a poor grade on an exam, are later given an opportunity to express prejudice towards an outgroup member, their self-esteem rebounds.
Steele’s self-affirmation theory also links prejudice to how we feel about ourselves. Self-affirmation theory posits that individuals are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self. Integrity refers to one’s sense of “worth”—an individual’s belief that they are a “good person”. The criteria for assessing one’s integrity/self-worth varies across cultures and situations. Across different contexts, integrity might refer to honesty, loyalty, modesty, or autonomy. In other contexts, integrity might involve maintaining close personal ties to others, competence, or intelligence. Self-integrity involves both how one perceives of themselves, and how they believe others view them, compared to that criteria. A threat to one’s integrity involves an actual or perceived failure in meeting those values and standards.
Threats to integrity activate various cognitive defences that act to diminish the threat and restore one’s self-worth. Self-affirming defences include reinterpreting the meaning of an event—for example, framing failure as a learning opportunity—or downplaying the significance of the threat—for example, dismissing or denying the event. Individuals can also restore their self-worth by derogating others. Simply put, we can make ourselves feel better by putting other people down. This tendency to disparage others when our self-worth is threatened is linked to prejudice.
Because prejudice can be a defensive response to integrity or self-esteem threats, developing inclusive work settings by fostering self-affirming workplaces can reduce the motivation for prejudice and tendencies for explicit or unconscious bias and drive inclusive work settings. In contrast, workplaces that threaten one’s integrity and self-esteem are more fertile grounds for “us” and “them” categorisations, the activation of negative stereotypes, and explicit or unconscious biased attitudes and behaviours.
Negative threats to our integrity can be countered by calling to mind other positive aspects of our self-worth. Reflecting on one’s core values can broaden our perspective—shifting the focus away from the identity-threatening event towards a more encompassing and affirming sense of one’s greater self-worth. Self-affirming techniques are used in education and clinical practice to reduce distress and promote more adaptive responses in the face of integrity threats.
Inclusive workplaces that recognise, respect, value, and embrace individual differences support self-worth. Our unique identity (whether national, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, health status) forms an integral part of our self-concept and self-esteem. When employers encourage the expression of unique identities, an employee’s self-esteem and integrity are supported. Inclusive workplaces have workers who are psychologically well-adjusted and secure. Those workers are less likely to categorise their colleagues into “us” versus “them” social groups.
In contrast, workplaces that seek to assimilate members to a dominant group culture can threaten one’s integrity. Attempts to superimpose new cultural elements on top of deeply ingrained personal values threaten one’s psychological well-being and can trigger self-affirming defence mechanisms that activate social categorisation processes.
Organisations can also support their employees’ self-esteem by ensuring the performance appraisal process includes timely and regular feedback on strengths and successes as well as developmental goals.
Reducing Bias by Supporting Employee Well-being
Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination involve the consideration of others as members of a larger group, rather than as differentiated individuals. This process of categorisation is adaptive in that it simplifies our environment and frees up mental resources. At any one time, our brain is bombarded with infinite stimuli. Without an efficient method of making sense of this information, our brains would become overloaded. By sorting all of these stimuli into simpler categories, we can process our environments more efficiently, freeing up mental resources for other tasks.
The adaptive benefit of stereotypes is supported by research that demonstrates they are more likely to be applied under cognitive load. When we have limited mental resources available for social perception—for example, because we are distracted by another cognitively taxing task, or we are under emotional or physiological stress—we rely more on stereotypes for our judgments and to guide our responses.
The demands facing today’s workers are significantly higher than for previous generations—workers are required to manage greater workloads, deliver higher levels of productivity, and cope with increased job uncertainty, while receiving less recognition for their achievements. Excessive job demands enhance stress, limit opportunities for adequate rest and recuperation, increase the potential for burnout, and threaten self-esteem. Whereas work has been a source of self-worth and security for previous generations, today’s employees increasingly experience the workplace as a source of anxiety and depression. Those conditions increase workplace incivility and harassment, which further damage perceptions of self-worth.
Supporting employee well-being:
Organisations seeking to develop inclusive work settings by reducing unconscious bias should be cognisant of the potential for excessive job demands to damage self-esteem and self-worth and trigger social categorisation processes. Also, workplaces that offer opportunities for performance success and growth, but do not impose unrealistic deadlines or targets, support employee well-being.
Working with people from cultural backgrounds different from our own can be particularly complex, stressful, and exhausting. There can be communication barriers, misunderstandings, and value conflicts. Also, time-zone differences, international travel, and virtual communication can increase the risk of exhaustion and burnout. The challenges associated with intercultural interactions can trigger social categorisation processes. Efforts to enhance employee adjustment and well-being and boost resilience in diverse cultural settings can help to buffer stress and counter a reliance on stereotypes. Cultural intelligence training or coaching can improve adjustment in diverse cultural settings and reduce the risk of culture shock. Also, assignments in multicultural settings should be challenging—but not overly so. Organisations should be wary of imposing tight deadlines or significant resource constraints.
Reducing Bias Through Positive Intergroup Contact
Studies indicate that the formation of intergroup friendships can help to dismantle social categorisations and decrease bias.
Activities that encourage diverse individuals to share information about their unique backgrounds, experiences, and skills promotes individuation of outgroup members such that they come to be considered as individuals rather than as a member of a broader social category. Under this approach, the focus moves from “one of them” to “you and me”.
There is another mechanism by which relational-based activities decrease the tendency for bias. Studies have shown that social categories can become more inclusive by inducing a positive mood state. There are a couple of reasons why this occurs. Firstly, we are attracted to people that we associate with feeling good. Secondly, a positive mood enhances our cognitive flexibility and leads to broader and more inclusive categorisations.
Supporting positive intergroup contact:
Organisations should offer individuals from different social groups opportunities to develop intimate friendships over an extended period. Relational activities might involve social get-togethers and recreational activities, ensuring there is adequate time for interpersonal dialogue on top of work responsibilities, formal team-building initiatives, and mentoring.
Organisations seeking to support the transfer of skills from unconscious bias training back to the workplace should also seek to limit practices that might exacerbate negative tensions between employees like highly individualistic job designs and reward structures that foster competitiveness and defensiveness.
Face-to-face intergroup contact may not be possible in some contexts. Different cultural groups might be geographically dispersed providing limited opportunities for direct contact. Many intercultural interactions in the workplace occur virtually. Studies indicate, however, that positive indirect contact can have a similar effect to positive direct contact. There are four types of indirect social contact:
Extended contact involves learning that another member of one’s ingroup has a close relationship with a member of another social group.
Imagined contact involves imagining yourself engaging in positive interactions with a member of another group.
Parasocial contact involves exposure to intergroup interactions through the media.
Vicarious contact involves observing the positive interaction of another ingroup member with outgroup members.
While empirical support for indirect contact is much lower in volume than for direct face-to-face contact, its effectiveness for dismantling social categorisations and reducing prejudice and bias is now established.
Organisations can promote positive indirect contact through the use of corporate communications like company websites, newsletters, emails, briefings, and team meetings to highlight examples of positive relations between members of different social groups. The modeling of intergroup friendships by leaders and diversity champions is another powerful indirect contact technique.
Reducing Bias by Promoting Pro-equality Norms
The way that we categorise people is socially constructed and is thus powerfully influenced by social norms. Normative approaches can be simple yet effective interventions in the workplace and can be approached from multiple angles for developing inclusive work settings.
Promoting pro-equality norms:
Organisational culture and policies—promoting diversity and inclusion, sanctioning discrimination and prejudice
Corporate communications—as above, highlighting examples of intergroup friendships and positive intergroup contact
Leadership—a diverse leadership team, modelling pro-social intergroup behaviours
Diversity champions—modelling appropriate responses to bias and prejudice, positive intergroup interactions, and diverse friendships
The Necessity of a Multifaceted Approach
Addressing unconscious bias at work is problematic because, by its definition, an individual will most likely be unaware of its influence. Also, negative stereotypes and prejudices are maintained and reinforced by powerful cognitive and motivational biases that act to filter out information that contradicts or challenges our pre-existing beliefs or attitudes.
Unconscious bias training alone is unlikely to be effective. The complexity of unconscious bias necessitates a multifaceted approach. Organisations that invest in unconscious bias training and commit to work environments that discourage social categorisations stand the best chance of leveraging the strategic value of diversity.
Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.