Overcoming unconscious bias to create a more inclusive firm

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We all harbor biases. Often these biases are unconscious, yet they still impact the decisions we make and our firm culture. This doesn’t mean we have to throw up our hands and let “what will be will be.”

True change can occur by recognizing that we all come to the table with our own innate ideas, and by doing what we can to overcome them and create a more inclusive — and ultimately profitable — firm.

Address unconscious bias in terms of aptitude and leadership

When a firm’s leadership is composed of people who look the same and share similar life experience, those outside that group have a much harder time breaking barriers to move up the ranks toward partner. In many cases, people of color and women aren’t “seen” as leaders simply because they aren’t historically, or currently, in positions of power in many firms.

Unfortunately, to overcome current partners’ unconscious biases, this can lead to a greater scrutiny of next-generation leaders in underrepresented groups. Assumptions about competence and ability lie deep in our subconscious, and it is difficult to break out of them without putting policies and procedures in place that require that each person get a fair shake. This has been repeatedly demonstrated with resume studies where candidates with male and white-sounding names are naturally assumed to be more competent and generate a higher level of interest than identical resumes from women or those with an African-American-sounding name. These types of assumptions don’t end when a member of an under-represented group joins the firm; they impact how they are seen throughout their career too.

Avoid unfair assumptions about behaviors

When was the last time that your actions were assumed to be the actions of everyone within your group? If you make a mistake, is it assumed that every white/male/etc. person is simply not capable of handling the task at hand? While this seems ridiculous on its face, it is more common than you think for members of under-represented groups.

Success among those in an “in-group” tends to be credited to competence, while failure is viewed as more situational. The reverse is too often true of “out-group” team members where achievements are seen as due to situational factors and failure is blamed on the inability of people in that group to succeed at that type of task. Over time, partners and firm leaders are less likely to promote people in the “out-group” and members of that group become disgruntled and defeated (and often find a new job) since they are passed over due to no fault of their own. It isn’t long before firm leadership starts wondering why their efforts at hiring from minority groups seems like a waste of time, since so many leave for other jobs. And thus, the cycle continues.

Quit expecting people to behave a certain way

Patterns in behavior, and life in general, make us more comfortable in our environment. We all expect people to act a certain way based on what we have seen in our past, and feel uncomfortable when the apple cart is upset. In fact, we can even dislike people who fall outside our expectations, often without realizing why.

For example, women from the partner level on down to associate who are not afraid to speak up and disagree with others are frequently seen as “pushy,” “egotistical” and even “hostile.” Yet the same behaviors in men are more common and described as “assertive,” “having leadership potential” or “strategic,” because we are more used to men taking on that role.

Exhibiting these behaviors doesn’t make you a bad person; it is automatic, unconscious thinking that needs to be addressed. And it can be overcome in each of us as individuals and collectively in our firms. I’m not saying it will be easy, but we can all start taking small steps toward creating a firm culture that is less biased and more inclusive.

One easy way to get started is by creating some new “rules of engagement” in meetings, including:

  • Quit allowing interruptions in team meetings, regardless of the speaker's position at the firm.
  • Allow everyone to share their opinion freely and listen with an open mind.
  • Consider asking everyone to submit ideas prior to a discussion and read each one aloud without sharing who submitted it.
  • Vote by ballot on ideas so each person feels comfortable sharing their opinion, particularly when it runs counter to that of their supervising partner.
  • Ask team members to share their ideas on how to make meetings more inclusive, and then institute them, even if they seem silly to you as a firm partner.

The more people from different walks of life contribute to decisions, the greater your firm's collective intelligence and decision-making will be. This is a great way to start moving toward a more inclusive environment and more equitable evaluation of people and ideas.

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Diversity and equality Racial Bias Gender discrimination Practice management