Tackling unconscious bias in the professional services industry

27 October 2021 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read
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Angela Peacock, global director of diversity and inclusion at training consultancy PDT Global (part of Affirmity), reflects on how conscious inclusion could perhaps be the answer when it comes to tackling unconscious bias in the professional services industry.

Unconscious bias in the workplace has been making headlines for some time – not least because changing something you don't even know you're doing is a difficult challenge. But the conversation is now shifting to talk of ‘conscious inclusion’, as it does not offer the same escape route of dismissing the problem and failing to deal with it.

Conscious inclusion involves a practical approach to driving the thoughts, beliefs and behaviours that enable us to value and leverage our differences to achieve better results. In other words, it is not enough to simply be aware of your unconscious biases – you need to consciously change your behaviour to be more inclusive.

Angela Peacock, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, PDT Global

The stakes are high. Employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work – and to plan to leave their current jobs within the year. Many studies also suggest that unconscious bias contributes to lack of diversity in boardrooms, which hinders performance and creates opportunities for more-diverse organisations to gain an edge. 

McKinsey & Company, for example, has reported that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than those in the fourth quartile. For companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity on their executive teams, the likelihood of outperformance rose to 33%.

But myths about unconscious bias still abound. Many professional services organisations will have people who really believe they don't have any unconscious biases, for example – or who think they already know what their unconscious biases are, without being aware of their blind spots. Another common misconception is that since unconscious bias is unconscious, there's nothing you can do about it.

And it's not just about recognising the widely known race, gender and disability biases. Neurodiversity is also crucial – the variations in our brains regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions. Recognising what we consider to be professional and acceptable, both in written communications and in person, is another place to seek bias.

What can be done?

So what steps can consultants take to tackle unconscious bias and embrace a new conscious inclusion approach? For professional services firms, there is a simple-to-read – but hard-to-do – formula that will make a critical difference to who ends up being your talent or on your partner track.

Surprisingly, the discrimination that happens as a result of bias can begin at the outset of a career in the consulting sector. Who gets assigned to a project – or gets to work on a deal – is critical. But it is often a partner who gets to decide the mix of associates on their deals. And therein lies the rub.

One solution is to create a small team that selects the people assigned to a project, with nobody – not even the managing partner – allowed to change the decision or pressure the team to add their go-to person into the mix.

A simple formula can then be used, based on assessing each individual in three ways:

  1. The individual human – what will being on the project do for the associate in terms of their wellbeing? Have they just been on an 80-hour-a-week deal, for example, or adopted twins? And what they will learn as part of the team?
  2. The client/project/deal itself – here you totally look at the business success. If having this person on the project is critical to its success, it's a factor to include in the calculation.
  3. The need for the firm to create an inclusive workplace that drives diversity. If you are constantly selecting only a homogenous team, this is going to affect the move to conscious inclusion.

Awareness of what your particular unconscious biases are is the first step towards tackling them. Become aware of who you feel ‘comfortable’ with – and who you don’t. Explore your hidden assumptions about the people you're not comfortable with and then make a conscious effort to learn more about them as individuals and engage with them.

Empathy is key, particularly ‘perspective taking’. The ability to feel or imagine what another person feels or might feel is invaluable. Take time to have a chat with colleagues about career goals, relationships or hobbies before you move on to speak about work. Exposure to different groups of people helps to challenge stereotypes that may have built up in your mind.

Mixing with a variety of people outside your traditional circle helps break down assumptions and opens the door to conscious inclusion.

Another useful tip is to use positive stereotype imagery to imagine alternatives to any negative ones you may have in your mind. This positive and proactive approach to changing stereotypes involves considering the diversity within your social and work groups, as well as the many examples of those you don’t know personally – such as politicians and celebrities – who break the stereotypes.

Micro-affirmations – small gestures of respect and inclusion – are another way of practising conscious inclusion. More focus on listening, valuing and engaging with those from different groups helps to make the workplace a more equitable environment.