To be human is to have bias. If you were to say, “I don’t have bias,” you’d be saying your brain isn’t functioning properly!
Essentially, unconscious bias arises from the brain’s capacity problem. We take in an astonishing eleven million pieces of information each second, but we can consciously process only about forty of those bits.*
To handle the gap, our brains build shortcuts to make sense of this information. We focus on the one angry customer instead of the hundreds of raving fans (negativity bias). We pay special attention to data that proves our strategy is working and gloss over data that casts doubt (confirmation bias). We unconsciously prefer the first job candidate we meet (primacy bias). And we simply like people who are like us (affinity bias).
These shortcuts can be a boon for time-strapped professionals, letting us make quick decisions without having to deliberate on every detail. They can also distort the facts, cause inaccurate judgments, and inhibit our professional performance and possibilities.
As logical and fair as we try to be, we are nearly always operating with a degree of bias, without ever being aware of it. But the sense that people who have biases are inherently ill-intentioned or morally flawed is one of the paradigms that stops us from making progress on this issue.
There’s no shame in having unconscious bias; it’s a natural part of the human condition that shows up in our decisions, our reactions, and our interactions with others. This is true in our relationships, our teams, and our organizations. We all have bias, so let’s acknowledge it and begin to improve.
I wear several hats at FranklinCovey, the global leader in helping organizations achieve results that require a change in human behavior. I consult with clients on broad leadership solutions, with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion; manage some of our most strategic accounts; and lead a team that supports those clients. As the lead architect of FranklinCovey’s Unconscious Bias solutions, I help leaders build the skills to reframe bias, cultivate connection, and create high-performing teams. I’m also a first-generation American with roots in the Dominican Republic, Afro-Latina, the firstborn of eight children, and a wife.* I dabble in triathlons and 10Ks, and am always interested in a good story in print, on the screen, or over a glass of wine. I’m also the proud mama to two tiny humans, brown boys in America. We’ll talk more about identifiers—mine and yours—as we move through this book. I spend a lot of time thinking about bias, both personally and professionally.
But none of that precludes me from having my own unconscious biases.
A few years ago, I won a large client contract, one of the biggest in the company at the time. We suddenly faced six months of work that needed to be completed in half that time to get a high-profile program off the ground. I was traveling every other week around the globe, balancing a two-year-old and a third grader at home, and working around the clock to ensure this project was a success. We needed more personnel, ASAP!
We began the hiring process for a new project manager, and after several rounds of interviews, we offered the job to Jordyn, a fantastic candidate with extensive customer-facing experience. She seemed ready for a new challenge and had an energy I related to. Jordyn accepted the job immediately—and then asked about the maternity leave policy. She was pregnant.
Did you groan when you read that? Admittedly, I groaned when I heard it!
I told her I would email information on benefits, ended the conversation, then immediately went to my leader, Preston, to vent my frustration. Why didn’t this come up in the interview process? Should we have offered the job to another candidate? Of course not—that would have been illegal, and Jordyn was the best candidate . . . but how on earth would she handle a new job and a new baby in the coming months? And maternity leave?! She hadn’t even started yet, and I was already panicking about covering her absence.
Preston listened to my frustration and gently reminded me that we’d just had a pretty seamless maternity leave experience with another member of the team . . . me! Remember I mentioned I had a two-year-old at the time? My organization had given me flexibility in travel and work setting, and was patient with the occasional coo, babble, or cry on videoconference calls. (Frankly, they still are. Those sounds have given way to animal impressions, ninja battles, and couch jumping, and my boys still invade the home office from time to time!) In return, I’d created solid plans for coverage in my absence, ensured nothing fell through the cracks, and returned from leave with the energy to exceed expectations.
Preston told me, “There’s no one better than you to navigate this successfully,” then walked me through the process he’d used to prepare for my maternity leave. Having a plan resolved a lot of the tension I was feeling. I’d been lucky to have received empathy, confidence, and support from my leaders. And that was what I needed to offer this new employee; Jordyn deserved no less.
The mind-boggling thing about this experience was that I passionately believe workplaces achieve their highest performance when they allow their employees to be whole people, which includes taking the time to adjust to big life events like having a baby. I’m familiar with a wealth of research connecting parental leave and flexible workplace policies to better outcomes for parents, children, and results at work. I have a personal mission to develop diverse leaders and create inclusive workplaces that support them. I am consciously a champion of parenthood in the workplace!
But unconsciously, despite my own experience taking maternity leave and my values, I had a negative bias toward maternity leave, something I would not have recognized had I not been put in a circumstance for these feelings to come up. And when we’re in situations that bring the unconscious to a heightened level of consciousness, we often find that our unconscious biases directly contradict our stated values.
As I write this, my team member’s son just turned one. Did I miss her contribution while she was on leave? Absolutely! Did the many conversations we had leading up to her maternity leave give me some anxiety about how we’d fill the gap? Definitely! But I worked hard to ensure my negative bias didn’t creep in, and we made a solid plan for her absence. While she was out, other members of the team had the opportunity to step up and perhaps perform outside of their comfort zone. As the old adage goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Boy, was I grateful when she returned!
As leaders, we’ve all likely encountered situations like this. I was recently on a call with an executive who had two employees taking overlapping paternity leaves, and he shared some of the same initial sentiments. But he ultimately supported both of them, and they returned from leave totally engaged. No leader is immune to the effects of bias. It is an ongoing reality—not something we learn once and conquer forevermore, but something we must continually examine and address.
Simply put, bias is a natural part of the human condition and can have a real impact on how we define our possibilities and those of others. The topic of unconscious bias can be a controversial one, fraught with opinions, politics, assumptions, and difficult interactions. But our experience and research have shown that bias is far more ubiquitous than we can even imagine, and it’s impacting our organizational results—everything from culture, retention, recruitment, innovation, and profitability to shareholder return.
What Leaders Need to Know About Unconscious Bias
We define bias as a preference for or against a thing, person, or group compared with another. Biases may be held by an individual, a group, an institution. We’re sometimes conscious of these biases and can state them directly. Here’s a common example: “We prefer to hire salespeople who are extroverted.” Interestingly, data shows that the link between extroversion and sales success is essentially zero!* Conscious biases are often beliefs we have simply decided are facts, regardless of the evidence.
Our focus in this book is unconscious bias, also called implicit or cognitive bias. Research shows that we have unconscious biases around gender, race, job function, personality, age/generation, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, nationality, language ability, veteran status, culture, weight, height, physical ability, attractiveness, political affiliation, virtual/remote working, hair color— even the messiness of someone’s desk or their posture.
These unconscious biases can have a positive, benign, or negative impact. A team leader might have a bias for collaborating: her default when assigned a new project is to reach outside of her team to seek feedback and test assumptions. She gets better results because of this bias, so it generally has a positive impact on her, her colleagues, and her organization. Other biases are quite benign, like a preference for working with or without music.
But many biases have a significant negative impact. As a result, these unconscious biases can limit professional opportunities for ourselves and others across the entire Talent Lifecycle. The Talent Lifecycle is the process of your career—all of the decision points that occur like getting hired, promoted, or selected for stretch opportunities. It also includes what kind of benefits you receive. We’ll dive deeper into the Talent Lifecycle in Part 4 of this book.
Consider the following data:
• When five hundred hiring professionals were shown female candidates with a variety of body weights in a recent survey, only 18 percent said the heaviest-looking woman had leadership potential.* But is there a correlation between how much a woman weighs and her ability to lead? Of course not.
• Workers with strong regional accents are paid 20 percent less than those with a mainstream accent, according to research by the University of Chicago and the University of Munich. This bias against accents affects employees from the U.S. South, the working class in Britain, certain regions of Germany, and African Americans, to name just a few.†
• For people of color, the lighter your skin, the more likely you are to land a job, get promoted, be mentored, become CEO, and make more money. Lighter-skinned associates are more likely to be invited out to social events after work and befriended by their colleagues.‡
• Fifty-eight percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are over 6 feet tall, compared to only 14.5 percent of all U.S. adult males.§ Is there a correlation between height and the ability to run a company,
or is it just perception? What do we unconsciously think power should look like? What does this mean for women and other people of generally smaller physical stature?
None of us would post a job description consciously stating requirement for tall CEOs, slender high-potential leaders, posh accents, or light-skinned people of color; yet, the data shows that these unconscious preferences are coming out in our behavior and impacting the opportunities of others in a very real way. The bias I had against maternity leave—initially unconscious and brought to consciousness by my hiring experience with Jordyn—would have negatively impacted how I onboarded her, managed her, and engaged her in this new role. Her performance undoubtedly would have suffered as a result.
This book will focus on unconscious biases that have negative impact on our opportunities and those of others in the workplace, and we’ll evaluate that impact through FranklinCovey’s Performance Model.
You’ll notice in the Performance Model that there are three separate zones, each highlighting different experiences. Our goal, of course, is to be in the High-Performance Zone, where people contribute at their highest capabilities.
In the High-Performance Zone, people feel respected, included, and valued, and are able to contribute their best. Historically, conversations about diversity in the workplace focused on representation, or the composition of the workplace. Representation is important, but what you do with that representation is also critical. Do those people feel included? Do they feel like their perspectives are desired, that they have both a seat and a voice at the table?
In the Limiting Zone, people feel tolerated or ignored. Much of the work around diversity and inclusion has emphasized that we need to be tolerant of those who are different from us. But do any of us want to just be tolerated? It’s not a great feeling. If my husband simply tolerated me, our marriage would be in pretty bad shape. Tolerance in the workplace is similarly less than optimal. Do you bring your best ideas forward when you’re being tolerated or ignored? Do you want to?
In the workplace, people know when they’re being ignored or tolerated—it’s a very different feeling from being respected, included, and valued. As a woman of color operating in many predominantly White environments, I’ve felt the sting of that Limiting Zone. Often if I bring one of my male, White, or senior colleagues to a client meeting, the client will speak directly to my colleague, sometimes not even glancing my way, as if I’m not in the room at all and despite the expertise I might bring to that conversation. When something like this happened once, I dismissed it as probably not a big deal. But when it happened time and time again, I started to think, “Why am I being ignored? I’ve prepped for the meeting, connected in advance of the meeting to set expectations, and responded to the client’s needs. Is there something else going on here?” Perhaps you’ve also experienced the Limiting Zone. What was the effect on your engagement and results?
Let’s move into the Damaging Zone. Although we’ve discussed how bias is a normal part of how the brain works, we want to acknowledge that bias in the extreme can be incredibly damaging. In this zone, that level of bias can go even further to the point of illegality—harassment or abuse.
Much of diversity and inclusion (D&I) training in the workplace centers on the Damaging Zone, the most egregious of impacts. In my experience, people start to tune out when conversations about inclusion move to harassment and discrimination. Most of us don’t consider ourselves capable of going that far. The consequence is that many of us couldn’t imagine we’d be in the Limiting Zone either—and that’s a mistake, because we all operate unconsciously sometimes. My experience in hiring a pregnant employee taught me that we can all slip into the Limiting Zone if we’re not consistently exercising self-awareness. And once we’re in the Limiting Zone, we can slip into the Damaging Zone if the organization or team dynamic normalizes that negative behavior. And we’ve seen that organizations across the board are dealing with a significant level of harassment and discrimination litigation—from well-intentioned but perhaps insensitive or ignorant managers finding themselves in career-ending litigation related to harassment and discrimination, to leaders who’ve clearly abused their power.
Every one of us has likely had experiences in each of the zones: times we felt respected, included, and valued; times we felt tolerated or ignored; and times we felt slighted, even harassed or abused. Our actions have also put others in each of these zones.
Having experience in each zone means we know what it feels like to be in each zone. And once we can identify what it feels like, we can recognize when it’s happening and we can make positive progress on it.
Our Framework for Making Progress on Unconscious Bias
The good news is that our brains are wired not just for biases and preferences, but also for change and growth. It takes time and, more important, a conscious effort to create new neural pathways, ways of thinking, and habits. It’s not easy, but it can happen.
To achieve this change, we have created a framework, the Bias Progress Model, that moves beyond awareness of unconscious bias to specific action, comprised of four parts: Identify Bias, Cultivate
Connection, Choose Courage, and Apply Across the Talent Lifecycle. Our goal with FranklinCovey’s four-part Bias Progress Model is to not only define bias, but to provide a structure for making progress on it. In this framework, each component fuels the others. The more you build each muscle, the more they work together to build your self-awareness, openness, potential for growth, and align to your purpose.
To identify bias, we must first know what it is and the relationship between our biases and our identities, understand the basic neuroscience of why it happens, know some common terminology, and learn when we are most susceptible to bias traps. We must take on the intellectual pursuit of introspection and build self-awareness so we can look outside our own experiences to consider the experiences of those around us.
Some of our deepest human needs are to belong, to feel connected, and to be understood. The second component of the Bias Progress Model is built around cultivating meaningful connection through empathy and curiosity. Empathy and curiosity are two sides of the same coin—the interpersonal and intellectual approaches to building connection. If we can meaningfully connect with others, we will often find ourselves surprised at what we learn, which is a clear check on biases and preconceived notions. Cultivating connection gives us a path through bias by getting to know people for who they truly are versus who we perceive them to be.
We often think of courage as a brash and bold act. But courage is not always loud or ostentatious; it is sometimes quiet and careful. Through a combination of careful and bold courage, we can make progress on bias. This third part of the Bias Progress Model includes four ways to act with courage: the courage to identify bias, the courage to cope with bias, the courage to be an ally, and the courage to be an advocate.
Apply Across the Talent Lifecycle
As leaders, applying the Bias Progress Model in your relationships and to all your teams can fuel a shift to high performance. The ability to Identify Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Choose Courage as experienced through the Talent Lifecycle can transform the organization’s performance
for the better.
When we hear about the war on talent, retaining top talent, and ensuring collaboration and innovation, the lever through which an organization can achieve those things is the Talent Lifecycle. We often think of the Talent Lifecycle as a realm of law and HR policy; but ensuring a strong Talent Lifecycle requires all leaders to go beyond the regulations, policies, and procedures found in the company’s handbook. This final component of the Bias Progress Model, the surrounding piece of
the model, ensures that the policies live off the page and support real organizational results.
We’ll continue to unpack and explore the Bias Progress Model throughout this book. The book is organized into four parts:
Part 1: Identify Bias
Part 2: Cultivate Connection
Part 3: Choose Courage
Part 4: Apply Across the Talent Lifecycle
The Bias Progress Model is drawn from FranklinCovey’s Unconscious Bias: Understanding Bias to Unleash Potential work session, which has been field-tested by thousands of leaders at all levels in many industries, including healthcare, banking, technology, oil and gas, law enforcement, government, and retail. As the lead architect of this work session, I’ve had the privilege of constructing and delivering this program to numerous participants, and have worked with a brilliant team of global consultants to refine this material based on their feedback implementing the content. I’ve found that across industries and locations, leaders and organizations encounter bias that inhibits performance, but they’re unsure what to do about it. This Leader’s Guide is written to solve that problem.
What is a book about bias and inclusion without diverse perspectives? I’m also joined by my two coauthors, Mark Murphy and Anne Chow. While my voice guides the main text for ease of reading, we
are truly a team of collaborators. You will also see insights and experiences in Mark’s and Anne’s voices inset throughout the pages. Mark Murphy, a twenty-eight-year senior consultant at FranklinCovey, certifies FranklinCovey’s consultants and clients to deliver this content around the globe. You’ll hear his stories and perspective from working with clients across multiple industries. Because of his own life
experiences and extensive global travel, Mark is passionate about inclusion and bias and helps clients build inclusive cultures. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Mark has experienced firsthand the
impact these principles have on people’s abilities to bring their whole self to work.
Anne Chow, CEO of AT&T Business, a more than $30 billion division of AT&T that on its own would qualify as a Fortune 50 company, lends her experience in leading global teams and business transformation over the course of more than three decades in the telecom and tech industries. Anne started with AT&T as an engineer and has since held more than a dozen roles across the company, culminating with her appointment as the first female CEO of AT&T Business and the first woman of color CEO in AT&T’s over 140-year-old history. She brings her vast insights concerning leading at all levels, managing organizational change, serving clients, and driving cultural change. Anne is a proud second-generation Asian American, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan to pursue the American dream, and she’s passionate about the power of authenticity and communication to build inclusive, high-performing
organizations. She’s also a Juilliard-trained pianist and brings a sense of excellence and purpose to all she does, including her contributions to this book.
What to Expect
It is our hope that at the end of this book, you will feel empowered to deploy vulnerability, empathy, curiosity, and courage to make progress in the face of bias and build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization. If you’re a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional whose role is dedicated to this pursuit, we hope this book reinvigorates your efforts, gives you additional language to build allies and stakeholders, and inspires clear actions to make progress. If you are skeptical of diversity and inclusion as a critical leadership competency, we hope this book will open your mind to these ideas, if even just a bit. And for everyone in between, we’ve worked to build an accessible tool kit that expands your leadership to always consider inclusion. Here are two best practices to
get the most out of our book:
• Do the work. You’ll find an exercise or tool at the end of each chapter, segmented into reflections for individuals and application for leaders. We encourage you to grab a pen and write your answers
in the book. This takes a bit of time and effort, but completing the tools is the difference between simply learning about this content and implementing it to achieve better results.
• Explore further. You may read about ideas that don’t feel intuitive to you. Pursue those questions through further exploration. That might mean engaging with someone in your network with a different
perspective or background, or seeking out perspectives available in other forms of media—books, podcasts, or websites.
So with that context in mind, let’s tackle some of the burning questions you might have about this material.
With all that leaders are responsible for, is making progress on unconscious
bias really that important?
There’s a wealth of data that demonstrates the connection between bias and performance. Reducing bias can help your team and organization achieve better results—period.
Bias can inhibit decision making, performance, innovation, and results in the workplace. And a big part of our mandate throughout this book is to think about how bias can either inhibit or accelerate performance. Employees who perceive themselves to be the target of bias are three times as likely to withhold ideas, be disengaged, and leave within a year.* If you’ve been on the receiving end of bias, this makes perfect sense. If you haven’t, it can be shocking to consider that you might have unknowingly contributed to those perceptions or outcomes.
There is no idea more fundamental to performance than how we see and treat each other as human beings. This is why understanding and often challenging bias matters.
Is this topic just a trend?
The demographics are clear. We are living in a global world that requires us to collaborate and partner across many facets of identity.
Addressing unconscious bias is as much of a trend as innovation, change, and leadership skills—wait, exactly, they’re not! They aren’t always as visibly profitable on a balance sheet as revenue and cost, but these strategic competencies make all the difference in an organization’s ability to achieve results. As long as there are organizations to run, we will need to contend with bias and its effect on performance.
Is a lot of this more about politics or being politically correct?
As bias becomes a deeper part of societal consciousness, we might feel like we’re being put under a microscope. We all have strong feelings about our own perspectives, which sometimes come forward as politics. I believe that for some people, exploration of diversity, inclusion, and bias does align to their politics. But I do not believe these topics are political ones. In this book, our approach to bias is laser-focused on the connection between bias and workplace performance.
Our goals for this book do not include tokenism, political correctness, or limits on the opportunities of anyone. You will not walk away from this book with a list of what you can and cannot say, nor is it our intent to police anyone’s language or thoughts. The goal of exploring and reframing bias is not to censor you but to build your ability to understand and be understood as you connect with others.
Doesn’t this create reverse bias?
We would argue that there is no such thing as reverse bias. Bias is a preference for or against a thing, person, or group compared with another. Whether that bias is positive or negative, or about one group or another, it is bias.
Throughout this book, you will see examples that cross a robust spectrum of identities and circumstances. Will you read examples focused on race and gender? Absolutely. Will you also read examples focused on personality, job function, appearance, remote workers, accents, and education? Yes, plus many more.
Ultimately, we have all had an experience with bias, a way in which bias has impacted us negatively or positively. Bias impacts you if you have an unpopular opinion; if you’re left-handed, attractive, or disorganized; if you are an introvert or a risk-taker. It impacts you if you’re a veteran or a resident of a rural community or if you have a disability. And it impacts you based on your race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and IQ.
Exploration of bias is not about villainizing one group over another or making anyone feel guilt, shame, or fear. It’s about making progress on our biases and understanding how they limit possibilities for us or others. Our hope is that this content creates awareness, connection, and commitment.
Rudine Sims Bishop, the Ohio State Professor Emerita of Education who is commonly known as the mother of multicultural children’s literature, wrote: “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”* We hope you find some windows, sliding doors, and mirrors in this work. Embracing those possibilities will enhance your experience throughout this book and the application of these insights in every aspect of your life.