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Jesus, Long Hair and Other Subtle Questions Affecting My Business Decisions
While I was sitting at the bus stop the other day, an elderly lady wearing a black headscarf sat down beside me. She was clutching a rope of rosary beads, wearing more than an occasional crucifix and was manhandling a large bag of dry cat food that had split her single-use plastic carry bag.
After a while she turned to me and smiled sweetly (for what felt like an otherworldly long time) and then said with a heavy European accent:
“I have a message from Jesus for you. He doesn’t like your long hair.”
From there she went on to explain how using multiple marks of the cross on your clothing can help keep you in the good books with the divine, so to speak.
Now sadly, this is nothing new for me. I’ve worn long hair throughout my professional career in financial services, made possible, I’m sure, by running my own business. But the long locks constantly attract attention and comments, so I’ve become used to being a centre of a comment.
Every time I go to the barber for a trim, undoubtedly the first question the staff member will ask is, “So how long have you been growing your hair for?” Internally my standard answer is, ‘”Ever since I was born” but externally it sounds more like, “Oh, for around 20 years now.”
You see, I know the question they ask is really not about the length of my hair; it’s really about something else. How does the corporate environment react to you? What does it feel like when you wear a suit all day? What do other people say about you? Do they still take you seriously? Should you really look like that with the type of job you do? And why do you have such long hair when everyone around you has short hair?
You could say I’ve learnt the subtle art of understanding when you stand out in a crowd; people habitually wonder what it feels like, not to be part of a crowd. And true to human nature, they usually end up making decisions about you first based upon your external appearance; some consciously, others unconsciously.
What is a bias?
We all naturally rely upon our unconscious bias to make most of our daily routine decisions; from breathing to eating and who not to speak with on the train. It saves us time and allows us to focus on the priorities.
To be a little more specific, biases are the unconscious tendencies we seemingly all display that influence the way we think, act, see the world and the people in it.
Rational thought is rarer than you’d think.
Unconscious biases have a direct impact upon our team, their security, productivity and our overall business success. Unconsciously, they also feed off our ignorance, fears, uncertainties and personal biases and feelings. If these unconscious thoughts were left in the unconscious realm, you might fairly ask, “So what?”
But our unconscious is anything but silent when it comes to our decision-making process.
Subtle biases (and even covert prejudice) affect our interactions in the workplace and can translate into discriminatory behaviours, lost opportunities, misallocated resources and efforts, and the erosion of our culture and ability to out-think our competition.
It’s that last position, out-thinking our competition I want to explore.
Losing our competitive advantage.
Today, many businesses now have access to the same technology, same talent pool and the same best practices as we do. When we stop and consider our position in the market, many of our processes and systems are as good as our competitors. Many of our products are so similar to our competitors; it’s getting harder to define our own competitive advantage.
Our only remaining sustainable competitive difference may be our ability to make better decisions.
If this is the case, what affects our ability to make these better decisions, to out-think our competition, requires attention.
Bias and subtle discrimination, and it’s not so subtle effects on employees.
Blatant discrimination gets in the way of clear, rational thought – no argument there. While obvious biases are easy to see and deserve our immediate attention, the more subtle ones are harder to see (especially in ourselves) and require our constant attention.
We need to be looking to manage subtle workplace bias and other micro-aggressions because, in today’s workplaces, we’re much more likely to encounter subtle biases rather than their blatant counterparts. And like the growing porridge of microplastics now floating in our oceans and entering our food chain through contaminated seafood, these small and subtle biases equally contaminate our team decision-making abilities.
Why is unconscious bias so unusually effective?
Simple. Subtle bias attacks a very human trait.
The most human of all traits is our constant effort to ‘try and understand why people treat us the way they do’.
And we do this constantly; like breathing, maintaining our situational awareness watching for fight or flight responses and acting as our ‘danger detector’. It helps us quickly categorise others as either threats, neutral or positive.
It’s our continual internal monitoring of our place in the world around us (some might call it hypervigilance) that can significantly deplete our already limited emotional and cognitive resources.
To have this need constantly in a stage of change and uncertainty affects our decision making skill at a very deep level. This uncertainty is corrosive because people begin to spend a lot more time, energy and focus trying to figure out ‘why people treat us the way they do’ to determine if there is an unconscious threat that demands a response.
Due to its frequency and ever-presentness, subtle discrimination and bias are usually more stressful than its deliberate and more obvious instances of discrimination. Much like a persistent nagging low-level flu, the constant subtle effects combine to weaken internal personal resources and finally, under the radar discriminations results in contaminated decision-making processes and a loss of reliable known structure and direction.
Our teams thinking and responses become contaminated, and all decision-making processes are weakened. And if your only competitive edge is in your ability to ‘out-think your competition’, you have a structural problem and a coming fatigue.
This is also why workplace bullying is akin to metastasising cancer within a vulnerable workplace culture.
So, if it’s hard to see, how do you start to manage it?
1. Admit to the possibility we could be operating more in a level of bias in a particular situation than we’d like to be.
2. Build into our systems deliberate primers to help you focus on otherwise automatic decision-making systems.
Priming happens when one activity subtlety and usually unconsciously, impacts following behaviours. For me, eating chocolate triggers my need for coffee and vice versa. You could say one behaviour primes the other.
The good news is the process of priming can be applied to a positive process, priming people to look for potential areas of bias so that they can become more mindful and conscious of their decision-making processes.
Judging your own behaviour.
I’m often invited to sit on a judging panel at various business awards. To help me keep impartial, I follow a deliberate priming behaviour checklist below when I look at award nominations.
Six primer questions to help raise awareness of unconscious bias:
- Does this award nomination remind me in any way about myself?
- Does it remind me of somebody I know and is that positive, neutral or negative?
- What assessments have I already made about the person?
- Are these grounded in solid information or are they simply my interpretations based upon the sound of their name, their photo, their location or their profitability?”
- Are they really relevant to the award being sought?
- Are there things about the award nomination I may inadvertently put too much weight on due to my personal taste (Ok confession time – for me I can’t walk past a good infographic or timeline – just saying)?
Unconscious bias may be as natural as breathing and near impossible to remove from our decision-making processes. But by making room for regular conversations about possible biases and using priming questions to help focus attention, you can lead your team to better understand the risk of unconscious biases, and how to out-think the competition.
Postscript: When I last spoke with Jesus, he didn’t mention the long hair message; so I let the issue go.
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