An Experience in Bias

Imagine this: your boss calls you into his office.  Two of your colleagues have been given the plum opportunity to pitch an idea to the company COO, Susan Jones. The catch? They went out to dinner last night and got food poisoning.  Now, you and a colleague have their notes and a scant few moments to parse through them and prepare yourself before getting your five minutes with Susan.

You are both exhilarated and nervous.  You wait outside Susan’s office, conversing in whispers. Then her assistant knocks on her door, asks if she’s ready for you, and ushers you in.

Susan is tough and the five minutes is intense, with rapid fire questions.  But it’s clear that Susan is receptive, and you get the idea she likes both you and your proposal.  In fact, you’re pretty sure it’s going to be accepted!

When you come out, the admin asks you how it went in there. You’re fired up and excited but the colleague with whom you co-presented is rather subdued… even glum. So… what happened?

* * *

What happened is that you were a participant in the Autodesk Women in Leadership activity at the XSummit 17 Conference, Walk in their Shoes.  Pairs of two participants walked into this scenario, and were given three minutes to prepare a pitch for either flexible schedules for employees or company-wide mixers.  Once the three minutes for preparation were up, the participants were ushered in to meet Susan. Susan, in turn, treated the two participants very differently.

Susan responded very positively to the participant who did not speak first.  She smiled, focused on them, and faced them directly, with open body language.  She told them she liked their ideas, appreciated their questions, and expressed that they must have experience in the topic area. She used their name frequently and spoke with warmth.  In some cases, she suggested that they might co-present the idea with her to the company leadership council.

For the participant who spoke first, the experience was very different.  Susan met their ideas with skepticism; she questioned their expertise. She interrupted them to return focus to the favored participant, didn’t “get” their ideas, and asked them to justify themselves.  She did not maintain eye contact, forgot their names, and checked her watch or phone, rubbed her eyes when they spoke, or took long sips of water. In some cases, she assigned them grunt work to be sent to her admin, and--perhaps worst of all--took an idea of theirs and mis-attributed it to the other participant.

In short, Susan treated the dozens of pairs of participants to five minutes of egregiously biased behavior.

* * *

“It was great!”

After the experience, our facilitators debriefed participants. In almost all cases, the privileged participant either did not recognize the bias at all, or noticed a few signs of it and dismissed them. In short: they felt pretty great.  The responses of the non-privileged participants varied greatly, from individuals who recognized the bias immediately (“I saw what was happening, and I hate that…”) to those who did not register the behavior, but thought Susan didn’t like them. Several non-privileged participants admitted to simply giving up.

In the debrief, we itemized the behaviors they had encountered.  As the biased behaviors added up, many participants had a moment of realization: how easy it is to completely miss bias directed at someone else, and how easy it is to blame ourselves when it is directed to us. Moreover, the non-privileged participants expressed feeling awkward and reluctant to talk about their negative experience.  All of these patterns of behavior held true regardless of gender, race, or other identifiable characteristics.

To channel our learning productively, we created a wall of ideas on how we can recognize exclusion, and involve all of our colleagues and teammates.  We have encapsulated a few key learnings here:

  1. Observe. It is extremely difficult to recognize team dynamics while you are focused on a goal.  To assess team inclusiveness, take a step back, disengage from the immediate conversation, and watch the interactions. You may well be surprised by what you find!

  2. Amplify. Listen to what your colleagues say. When someone has a good idea that gets dismissed quickly, or is interrupted frequently, be the voice that calls attention to teammates who may, for whatever reason, be having a hard time being heard.

  3. Leverage Tools. Leverage tools and resources including LUMA facilitators and exercises (LUMA.org) that provide structure for ensuring all voices have a chance to be heard.

A few of the participants in the exercise, who were given the privileged treatment, surprised us. Even while they were intellectually unaware of the bias taking place before them, these individuals exercised unconscious skills in including their colleagues. They redirected Susan to their colleague, corrected her when she mis-attributed ideas to them, and continuously ensured that their non-privileged colleague was included in the conversation. Without even realizing they were doing it, they made sure that their colleague was included.

We at Autodesk are fortunate to work for a company filled with wonderful, well-intentioned colleagues.  As a result of our experiment, we learned how difficult it can be for any of us--no matter how caring and good-hearted--to spot exclusion, even when it is right before our eyes.  Our teams are strongest when we all have a voice, and it takes mindful and intentional practice to become like our exemplars of inclusion.




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