Shifting from Unconscious Bias Training to Unconscious Bias Elimination as a corporate imperative, By Ngozi Bell




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Ngozi Bell

Happy Tuesday and welcome to our column. 

Our topic today is Shifting from Unconscious Bias Training to Unconscious Bias Elimination as a corporate imperative

We’ll examine what that shift looks like, the benefit of the shift and practical steps a corporation can take to make the shift

than 15 years ago the transition from corporations seeing employees as “the support” that got the (the asset) done, to the framework of seeing the human capital as the most valuable asset started to rapidly take shape. Terms like Human Resource (HR) once relegated to backend and background functions were steadily becoming boardroom priority. The person, the worker, the employee was quickly emerging, coming into view in all their complexity. Seminars on people management became a thing, leadership was now less connected to the famous “bottom line” that once consumed everything and regarded as the only anchor to business longevity; to an artform of leadership that demanded a shift, to the people, the true assets of any enterprise. Suddenly, there was an awakening to be clued into people on every level. The point I am trying to make, is that we got here to this world of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion or DE&I through a long road that initially regarded such talk as derogatory.

In those years gone by when it seemed always about the work, the question arises, “but in reality, was it ever the case?” I leave that for you the reader to ponder. 

Now that we know better, we can easily answer that “it must always be about the people”. Whether acknowledged or not, people are the main stay in everything. From economics to the environment, from nature to Artificial Intelligence (AI), from politics to systems, we must deal with clarity and a fundamental understanding that at the centre of it all is people, or else it would be easy to again to slip into thinking that something else can be the anchor, when only people can!

It is this fundamental that makes Unconscious Bias (UB) elimination crucial, because UB limits the performance and participation of many people and in turn limits the best outcomes for everything! Unconscious Bias adversely affects people “the main stay of everything”!

Many corporations are engaging in Unconscious Bias Training (UBT), many extensively yet most with poor results. So how should UB be examined, and what should effective UBT or Unconscious Bias Elimination really look like?

For the rest of this paper, I will use a slide framework to discuss key subtopics that combine available research and my original work, to help corporations who authentically desire to eliminate Unconscious Bias.  

A – Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) Done Right: The Missing Piece of the Corporate Value System

What does this mean?

Let’ take a quick look at three well know global organisations, with three approaches, three outcomes and one issue of Unconscious Bias.

First – is Starbucks, marked ignored – 

Two black men waiting at a Starbucks were handcuffed because they would not leave when asked by a Starbucks employee. The justification was that because they were not making a purchase at that time, they were unwelcome, essentially persona non grata status. This demonstrated Starbuck’s lack of a corporate standard for non-discriminatory practices. It was as if the definition of a customer was left at the discretion of an employee. It demonstrated that a bad employee could decide on any given day, who to treat as a customer or not, and if she/he is a racist, one can only imagine the extremes of what could happen as in the case described here. What was ironic, was that Starbucks, a customer service company had left the definition of customer to an employee who on that day decided to interpret customer as only coinciding to the specific time the two men rang the cash register. This is regardless of if they might have rung it a day before or even much earlier that day!

Suffice it to say it cost Starbucks $7 million and a reputation hit

Second – is Nike, marked capitalised – 

Though Nike gets no kudos for being proactive, when Colin Kaepernick asked them to remove from the market, a shoe that featured the Betsy Ross confederate , a racist symbol, Nike did, and it gained them a rapid $3b addition to their market capitalisation and a revenue growth that continues to this day. 

Third – is NASDAQ, marked as leading – 

NASDAQ literally Shifted Culture.

NASDAQ lobbied the SEC (American Securities and Exchange Commission) to require diversity on boards of companies going to Initial Public Offering (IPO) within a two-year period or have them face potential delisting. 

That is a game changer! This one move is having a domino effect, making a huge difference in so many industries and shifting corporate policy very significantly. It has helped change the dynamics of corporations in a way that was not attained with decades of diversity and appeals.

So, the question to any corporate entity is – What will be your response?

B – Shifting the focus of Unconscious Bias Training

Some baseline points to consider 

Point 1

We all know that Bias is unsupported judgement in favour or against a person, something or group. 

Point 2

How we come to our individual biases is complex and involves both external and internal factors.

Point 3

Bias, when conscious – is overt and disruptive and companies and corporate entities have become astute at addressing this promptly! 

Conscious bias is particularly suited to solving at the individual level, because it is easier to prove. 

Corporations can address it by applying, a zero tolerance, 3 strikes you are out, individual focused sensitivity training etc. 

Point 4

When bias is Unconscious – it is inherent, insidious, hidden – this is harder for corporations to manage, it’s harder to prove.

For many organisations, it is so embedded in the fabric of the organisation that it is hard to identify, so they do not attempt much to combat it.

Point 5

In many proactive corporations and organisations, Unconscious Bias is handled like conscious bias – at the individual/employee level.   

That is where much of the Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) is focused today, that is also why it is largely ineffective.

Point 6 

Individuals and corporations are driven by different value systems so, when UBT is at the individual level, progress or failure varies case to case. 

In contrast, a corporate level value system on an ethical issue can be resolved with far reaching impact and encapsulate the organisation’s future

Point 7

At the individual level UBT can evoke emotional and defensive reactions. 

In contrast, at the corporate level, UB elimination can be linked to the corporation’s core values and be guided by its converged principles.

These seven points allude to the understanding that a shift of focus on UBT can have significant advantages.

To understand and identify the characteristics of that shift of focus, we have to look at the concept of Pattern Recognition.

C – Unconscious Bias uses pattern Recognition, but irresponsibly!

What is Pattern Recognition (PR)? It is an important natural process, that has been harnessed in technology to model and predict consumer behaviour. In Neural Networks it’s used for classification, learning and diagnosing; in it is used in biological and biomedical imaging; in meteorology it is used in weather forecasting. The Apple’s Siri is an AI / Machine Learning platform that uses pattern recognition to give recommendations that continue to align closer to our needs and desires. In security implementations it can be used to recognise irregularities in data. The list is endless. Predictive analytics is 100% reliant on PR. You and I use our mind’s PR engine every day to decide how we respond to a relationship, predict how well an activity will go, make a change in habit or avoid conflict or danger etc.

Unconscious Bias leverages those same Pattern Recognition “brain muscles” (the hippocampus and parahippocampal gyri, located in the medial temporal lobe). The issue is that with unconscious bias, the starting point is that it uses faulty data, and faulty perspectives to create judgments! 

For example, if we found out that the sum total of the clinical trial participants for the COVID -19 involved only four people and that the outcomes were then extrapolated to hundreds of millions of people and from those four results, essentially deemed safe and efficacious to hundreds of millions of people. We would all cry foul and justifiably refuse to take the vaccine.

Ironically, what is described above is akin to the process an unconscious bias undertakes before it is to put into wide practice! 

That is why unconscious bias is the ugly child of Pattern Recognition

The good thing is that Pattern Recognition can be harnessed to cure Unconscious Bias! 

So how does a corporation make the shift and harness Pattern Recognition to cure unconscious bias?

D – Shifting the corporate value system: Addressing the missing piece which is unconscious bias

Corporations must plug unconscious bias elimination into the corporate value system.

A corporation’s core value system of ethics, code of conduct, management philosophy, vision, mission, create the ethos and guiding principles that ensure its longevity.

There are countless stories of corporate misconduct or unethical leaders that at first seemed like there would be no consequences, but we know from Enron, American Apparel, Chiquita brands Int, Arthur Andersen, Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities LLC, Theranos, Wirecard etc. that regardless of how great a company is, poor ethics can destroy it.

Conversely, the stronger the ethics of a company, the better that company is long term. 

Starbucks ethical sourcing process brought it billions in revenue.

IBM still dominates in the global business services segment because it displays integrity and transparency when introducing new technologies like they did with AI, iDLT etc.

By adding unconscious bias elimination to a corporation’s value system, it would be creating an even stronger backbone that will allow it flourish in the future. 

E – How to make the shift from traditional UBT to UB Elimination as an equivalent to corporate ethics

Corporations can practically make unconscious bias elimination as important as their corporate ethics.

First and foremost a company that wants to be world class and go beyond its current market or reach farther than the address of its headquarters must engage with a “globally scaled” ethics framework.

Let us examine a few global trends that ought to matter to every industry:

  1. Research shows that the emerging buying power is socially conscious and seeks partners rather than vendors – this means that buyers will gravitate to corporations that exhibit the values they care about.
  2. Research (McKinsey et al) shows that Africa will by 2030 have the youngest population, and it will facilitate $6.7T of commerce into the global economy that year and beyond. This represents new markets with long life cycles that every growth minded corporate would want to consider.
  3. We are already seeing that innovations in the biggest global sector, healthcare, increasingly involves immigrants and diverse people. As was the case in the COVID-19 vaccine development – this means that diverse people and immigrants will make visible global-size life impacting contributions, so there is no getting around, getting on with immigrants and diverse people.

Knowing this, corporations can maximise participation in these global trends by eliminating UB. This is achievable if they treated it on the same equivalent as their policies on ethics and recognise that failing here could in the long run sink their companies.

Some practical steps for corporations to follow:

Corporates can examine their current practices against the backdrop of the global trends. They can apply SMART, SOUND, DATA DRIVEN PATTERN RECOGNITION to examine key areas like:

Who they hire, who they allow to lead, who they promote, etc.

They can ask themselves – What is the archetype that represents us today and what should it look like for our future?

To illustrate this, let us review the “who we allow to lead” framework as an example by using the step-by-step process outlined below.

Who is allowed to lead – identifying an unconscious bias and how it impacts a corporation?

Start at the ideals of the future the corporation is after and from there, define the leadership that future needs and deserves. 

Then deconstruct the current archetypes of the corporation into essential vs non-essential attributes or superficial vs contributing attributes. 

What shows up is that many of the non-essential or superficial attributes are the harbinger and consequences of corporate unconscious bias choices.

Filling the gap that our future market needs gives us an opportunity to fix the unconscious bias choices.

Going through the process, a corporation will eventually define clear recognisable attributes that support the values and the future they want. The corporation can then surround that future with upgraded sustaining values that include unconscious bias elimination techniques at each stage. 

This process will achieve a utopia of sorts, where the good fundamentals of the company and its upgraded corporate values will help secure a leadership role in the emerging future!

This step is what creates a sustaining infrastructure for the corporation’s future

Reviewing the process via example of a superficial attribute that demonstrates corporate unconscious bias:

A company called Wegotthis, an apparel company has always had male leaders, and every one of them is from North America. Wegotthis has succeeded economically for nearly a decade, using the exact same leadership criteria and as such has never deviated from it. However, while Wegotthis is comfortable with these two criteria, using male or North American origin as a fixed archetype for leadership are superficial and non-essential attributes resulting from unconscious bias. But wait a minute, they are working because Wegotthis has remained economically successful.

This bad strategy by Wegotthis can suddenly cause a downturn. For example, if a huge but very competitive market opportunity to enter Cambodia became available. What if additionally, the opportunity had growth skewed towards women’s apparel. It would be easy to decipher quickly that having someone with Cambodian experience and potentially someone with native linkage and a female would be advantageous. 

Wegotthis can continue with its leadership archetype and fail sooner or later. However, it will be quickly evident that Wegotthis leadership archetype will not serve them well to lead in this emerging future. It could also be the catalyst for Wegotthis to engage in unconscious bias elimination in who they allow to lead by following the steps outlined earlier.

Finally, after eliminating unconscious bias, it is important to create a sustaining infrastructure that does not allow UB creep back in.

One big way for corporates to do this is to avoid orphan strategies. Orphan strategies are stranded strategies that leave parts of organisations siloed, eventually dragging down the entire corporate. 

If for example, as Wegotthis prepares to enter Cambodia, should they create a Cambodia strategy that ONLY thrives in Cambodia – No! They should instead create a Wegotthis corporate strategy that thrives in Cambodia. It means expanding their core values to include Cambodia completely much like all their existing markets.

It means ensuring that the leadership in Cambodia is integrated with all Wegotthis leadership. They want the Cambodia team to feel supported and to thrive.

It means that Wegotthis must cross pollinate their existing processes so that as a corporation, they can apply what they learn in one place, in another place.

Written with additional credits to Yamira Bell, Zaneta Bell, Ebube Bell and Okezue Bell.

About Ngozi Bell

Inspiration, Hard Work, Innovation. These three foundational elements anchor Ngozi’s core belief that manifesting the extraordinary is always within reach. Inspired by her mother A.C.Obikwere, a scientist and author, she learned the privilege of living at the edge of important encounters and dedicating herself to robust and perpetual learning. Ngozi’s background is a combination of Physics, Engineering, Venture Capital/Private Equity, regulations and business where she has managed over $1B in cumulative revenue. Ngozi is a speaker, story teller and writer on a diverse set of topics including AI, iDLT, ML, Signal Processing, iOT, women, entrepreneurship and more. She contributes regularly to VOA, has been featured on TEDx and is published on tech and non-tech platforms. She is a champion of STEM, women, , art and the “Africa we must engage”. Ngozi is an adjunct professor of Physics with work experience in Asia, Europe, Africa, Middle East and North America. She is a founder of a number of enterprises and host of the podcast Stem, Stocks and Stews (https://anchor.fm/stemstocksstews-podcast).