Think at London Business School
Wednesday 29 June 2022
Smoove CEO Jesper With-Fogstrup, EMBA2021, on leadership, fearless conversations and supporting more people to be out in business
By Laura Kennedy
Confronting bias in the workplace can be difficult. On top of the offence and psychological harm situations like these can generate, our colleagues who communicate bias may have more formal power or more social capital than us, so the risks of speaking out loom large.
We also may feel responsible for doing the right thing, which could create a sense of pressure that we ought to speak out. If you are a woman in a male-dominated workplace, these pressures can be intensified by the possibility that your male colleagues fail to even notice the bias that occurred. Here, I share suggestions for approaching the situation when it does.
Select a few phrases that you feel comfortable with and have them in reserve for when you feel it necessary to confront the incident. For example, you could ask, “Why would you say that?” or, “Do you really mean to communicate that stereotype?” Or, you may be more direct and say, “Hey, that’s not ok with me. Do you get why?”
To take one example, I noticed a colleague often got upset when I talked about gender inequality in the workplace, so I resolved to address it with her. I prepared what I was going to say ahead of time: “Recently when we have discussed gender inequality you have seemed irritated or even a little angry. I can’t tell if it is about me or the topic or both, but either way, can you help me understand why?”
Why plan a go-to starting point? For three reasons. First, if we visualise ourselves taking an action ahead of time, we are more likely to carry it out.
Second, given how uncomfortable it can feel to hear biased comments at work, it helps to have a rehearsed phrase that will make us feel like ourselves in that moment.
Third, preparing a statement makes it clear that you have a concern, whilst avoiding accusing your colleague in a way that escalates their defensiveness to unproductive levels.
“Resist the urge to correct their views with data and facts, because that invites them to do the same.”
Be brief, be straightforward and ask questions. This approach gives your colleague an opportunity to apologise. If they do not, but instead react defensively, you have two options. You can either leave the situation – which is totally understandable – or you can go further and listen. I don’t mean waiting for them to finish talking before you share your point of view, of course. I mean fully exploring their point of view. Follow your go-to statement with open questions. Phrases such as: “Can you tell me why you feel this way?” and “Why is this issue important to you?” or “How did you arrive at this view?” are all helpful, explorative questions.
Resist the urge to correct their views with data and facts because that invites them to do the same, which often creates an escalating debate over who has the most accurate information. Whether women are as capable and deserving as men, or whether racial minorities deserve equal treatment, are not up for debate. Instead, step back and try to understand why your colleague holds their view.
When you have explored their view, summarise what you have heard to check that you’ve understood them correctly. The idea here is to paraphrase what they have said, not to agree with them.
Listening is hard when your values are challenged but, by listening, you create an open and fair environment for interacting that will encourage people to listen to you in return.
This is how I approached the colleague I mentioned earlier. She was defensive and said a lot of things; some of which were irrelevant and seemed designed to blame me for her actions. Instead of reacting, I stayed neutral and encouraged her to talk by asking open questions. What I ultimately understood was that she felt she had never experienced gender bias, so she concluded that other women hadn’t either and were just playing the “victim card” to get ahead. This is how I summarised it to her and she agreed.
Now that you’ve really listened to your colleague, you hopefully understand their values. This is essential if you ever want to change their point of view. When we try to encourage other people to adopt our thinking, we often frame our arguments through the lens of our own values. But when people don’t share our values, they won’t be convinced by arguments built on them.
It’s helpful to establish their underlying values and explore any areas of agreement you share before arguing the facts. You may begin by explicitly acknowledging the overlap in your values – “Well, I certainly think that organisations should be meritocratic, and it sounds like you agree with me?” Then you can move to challenge that value – but, rather than spouting facts and figures and telling your colleague what they mean, it may be more helpful to ask them how they understand the data through the lens of their values.
In my conversation with my colleague, I realised that she valued experiences more than data. In her view, women like her – high-achieving and well-educated – no longer experience gender bias. So, I gave her lived experiences of women we both knew. I reminded her of our mutual friend at work who lost an internship early in her career when she refused the sexual advances of her boss, and of another colleague who was a higher performer than her male peers based on numbers, but who got passed over for promotion.
I talked about my own experiences, too. I asked her how she would feel if she’d had those experiences. Her answer told me that, by personalising the issue, I had given her a permission structure to care about gender equality through her value of lived experiences.
Ending on an agreement is important for de-escalating emotional tension between you and your colleague. It’s likely you will still have differences. However, by finding just a single point of agreement, you will leave the conversation on common ground and be ready for another conversation in the future. It is also essential to prepare a closing that both asks for what you want and endorses the ability to grow, learn and change for you and your colleague. You may want them to think about what you have said, you may want them to change their beliefs, or you may just want them to change their behaviour.
Be specific about this, so that you can close the conversation strongly. Pairing that direction with saying that you believe they can change provides your colleague with everything they need to do better in the future. This helps them improve themselves, it helps you avoid experiencing bias again, and it helps avoid the worry that “if only I had done enough, things would be different.”
In my conversation with my colleague, it was simple. She had already resolved to be less emotionally reactive to me when discussing gender in the workplace. All I had to do was thank her. I must add the important caveat that some individuals may be deeply sexist or racist. When this is the case, the conversational approach described above could mean that you are further exposed to their prejudices. I believe such moments perfectly embody the adage, “when people show you who they are, believe them.”
You do not want to work with people who are openly prejudiced; if this conversation is not successful, it may not be worth your while to try again.
I also acknowledge that, when confronted in this way, some colleagues will further justify their biased comment and criticise you for addressing it. Some individuals try to explain their way out of biased comments, then say it wasn’t intentional. Be prepared to confront them, and never feel powerless. Remember that, in speaking out against bias, you are doing the diversity work your employer likely wants you to do. If that colleague does not take the opportunity to make the workplace a better, more equal place, they might not deserve you.
Aneeta Rattan is Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. This article is adapted from a Career Equally blog post.
It may be helpful to think of the last time you heard a sexist remark in the workplace and didn’t speak up. Imagine if you could have this conversation again – how would you open the conversation?
Any new skill takes practice, and the same goes for the skill of confronting bias in the workplace. Try using these techniques in a conversation with colleagues about a different topic that is less important to you or in any conversations you have about gender equality with friends and family members.
Decide what you will say to encourage others’ ability to consider your views while asking specifically for a change in behaviour. Think of past conversations where you could have done so but didn’t. What would you say to that person if you could revisit the conversation?