We are all biased, whether we like it or not, and whether we accept it or not. It is part of the human condition. The problem is that if unconscious bias is left unchecked, it can have an insidious way of eroding our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and, as a result, the conclusions we draw and act upon.

Our unconscious bias directly impacts how we show up and act, how we make decisions, and how we interact, influence and lead. In a business context, this will impact who we choose to work with, promote, socialize with, include, exclude or resist.

South African businesses are avoiding tough conversations – to our detriment

The problem we are facing as South African businesses, is that we are petrified of having these real conversations. We are afraid of the messiness that is likely to emerge when we have spent so much time sanitising the surface of the issue and ticking boxes for compliance. We are largely unskilled in this area, and don’t know how to hold the tension or navigate the flood of human experience and emotion that’s likely to emerge.

This severely impacts a business’s ultimate ability to perform and grow. Why? Because we know that organisational culture affects the bottom line. Ian Fuhr, founder and CEO of Hatch Institute says that culture is the bottom line. This is core to our ethos at Hatch.

Research has revealed that companies with strong cultures saw a four times increase in revenue growth. Satisfied employees also outperform their competitors by 20%, and this experience is attributed to 12% more productivity.

Reason for Being and organisational culture

Cultivating organisational cultures requires a strong Reason for Being that goes beyond profit. This Reason for Being brings a business’s people together towards a common purpose. However, real, ongoing and often tough conversations about the real issues are imperative to rally your people around a common purpose. Organisations need to learn to listen and to work on their individual and collective bias and systemic blindspots in order to begin to create strong cultures. Businesses that achieve this can then begin to truly celebrate diversity and leverage the unique and rich perspectives and experiences that their people bring.

If we cannot prioritise and create intentional space to talk about, listen and to truly see each other, we will be unable to fully leverage the potential that exists within our diverse teams.

Talking about race and how we relate across perspectives, paradigms and contexts, can only happen when we are willing to get curious, and sit with the pain and vulnerability that comes with owning our own shame.

Facing our own unconscious biases is not easy. In my experience working with business leaders, acknowledging our unconscious biases is often accompanied by burning shame. However, this is a necessary step towards becoming better leaders and building more inclusive, successful businesses. Here’s how you can begin the journey yourself:

1. Start talking about unconscious bias

According to Renée Richardson Gosline—Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management—media, advertising, and branding are a great place to begin the kinds of conversations that can ultimately spark change, not only on an interpersonal level, but in communities and within our economic, educational, and criminal justice systems.

2. Learn to hold the tension and the discomfort

In her ongoing research into unconscious racial bias, Gosline reveals an uncomfortable truth: we need to get uncomfortable. “It’s really uncomfortable to combat bias, and, as human beings, we have a primordial instinct to seek comfort and familiarity. That means that it’s really comfortable to be in networks that are familiar to us, that is people who are like us, those who don’t challenge us.”

3. Create intentional space

Create intentional space for your employees to come together to share their stories and more importantly, to listen to each other’s stories. Judith E Glaser, in her book, Conversational Intelligence, shares powerful tools on how to navigate conversations to build co-creative cultures.

We cannot begin to heal, if we cannot step into the fire, and begin to listen and to share what’s beneath the scars of our South African history.

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