Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,
During meetings over the past year, I and others have noticed a creeping phenomenon among some of our colleagues that’s making us very uncomfortable. What can be done about subtle but noticeable prejudices and biases against women, other cultures and even social classes that are frequently detectable in some people’s statements and opinions? Can we really tell other people how they should think?

Response:
You are not alone – recently there’s been a discernable escalation of intolerance within business which may indicate that there’s continuing and heightened sensitivity to issues of bias or that the pressures of volatile markets are bringing differentiated and polarised behaviours to the surface.

While the root causes of bias are many and varied and the related expressions are by no means uniform, the foundational assumptions are a serious matter. Some are responses to elevated levels of personal insecurity; some are provoked by imposed socio-technical exposures such as remote working groups; some are due to improper leadership initiatives where emphases are placed on inappropriate factors like the importance of time and cost deadlines; and others may be political in nature, relating to the informal distribution of power and leverage.

In addition, it may well be a characteristic of an immature organizational culture where there’s significant incompatibility between formally declared values and the more insidious informal subcultures which are not yet well enough defined, aligned and thus coherent. In this event, it’s a pure leadership issue.

Your point that there are some who practice the biases and some who don’t, leads me to believe that yours is a cultural problem rather than one of deeper-seated individual values, properly styled as prejudices. If the organization is undergoing substantial changes at this time, it may be that the manifestations are political as defined and thus transitional and temporary in nature.

All too likely, it’s a compendium of several factors, each exacerbating the others. However, this isn’t central to the design and implementation of a general initiative to limit and even reverse the undesirable impetus and this is the focus of your question.

You can, and should do something immediately and deliberately to address the issue, so let me suggest a five–step program for action that you can launch at both formal and informal levels to signal and reinforce a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to intolerance.

Step 1 – Determine the business case for interpersonal interaction and tolerance that can be promulgated as policy. Clearly there’s no disagreement that all members of the organization need to work collaboratively to create substantial added value and that anything that impedes or disrupts collaboration has to be eliminated. This moves the focus of intent to general business behaviours and away from personal values and beliefs.

Step 2 – Identify the precise business capabilities that, in practice, will contribute to the realization of strategic intent; then measure and reinforce these alone, ignoring other offered contributions which are not aligned. It’s a safe bet that biases will not be high profile contributions but the focus again is on that which works rather than that which obstructs.

Step 3 - Actively promote those capabilities which contribute directly to strategic intent by ‘talking up’ the heroes (those who practice the capabilities in the most effective ways), telling and re-telling the stories that portray successful applications (making sure that the punch-lines are prominent), promoting the rituals and rites of passage that define the success groups; and by using the informal networks for communication and decision support that relate to these capabilities.

Step 4 – Once this is largely in place, move definitively on those who cross the lines of acceptable behaviour in word or deed - gently but firmly at first (I can’t believe that you’d truly endorse such an opinion) and critically if the behaviour is repeated (Such a viewpoint is not in line with our strategic intent or business values!).

Step 5 – Go public with your formal Values, but only when you’re certain that your informal values as expressed in your designated heroes, stories, rituals and networks are properly aligned with your published Values; make a firm and unambiguous statement on how we do things around here.

It’s important to remember that we do not have the right to tell others what they should think and how they ought to judge the world around them; we do have the responsibility, as Jim Collins has said, "to get the right people on our bus, to get the wrong people off the bus and to get the right people in the right seats”.

Prominent role models, appropriate learnings, transparent practices and an engaged informal network will clear up this problem in short order.

I hope this helps.