Thinking about thinking
December 11, 2017
Micro-behaviours undoing inclusive culture?
December 11, 2017

Are micro-behaviours undoing your inclusive culture?

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Many companies are focused on creating an inclusive culture, but there are areas which are proving difficult to tackle because, much like unconscious bias, they happen outside of awareness. Micros-behaviours were first researched and written about by Mary Rowe, a professor at the Sloan School of management at MIT in 1972. She described them as “micro-inequities” and acknowledged that victims, bystanders and leaders alike find it hard to identify them. When the targets of micro-inequities do recognise the micro-messages, they find it’s exceedingly hard to explain to other people why these small behaviours can be a huge problem. And because they are small behaviours: it’s easy to belittle their effect.


 In our research for our book Brain-savvy Woman we found organisations were also struggling to bring micro-inequalities and their impact to the attention of leaders. These habits of mind are most frequently thought about in individual meetings and team situations but they also occur in performance and talent calibration, promotions, recruitment, coaching, mentoring and any situation where leaders are making decisions about people and their future.

We are all biased

Nobel laureate psychologist and founder of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that what he calls the “System 1” part of the brain works automatically, without effort and outside of our conscious control. According to Eric Kandel the neuroscientist this unconscious processing accounts for 80-90% of how our mind works. This is bias at its most basic.

It’s not all bad: as a default mechanism these unconscious processes help us to deal with masses of data and make decisions quickly. But they also mean we are vulnerable to acting and making decisions without realising we are being influenced by unconscious implicit associations – some of which result in gender and other forms of bias.

Without knowing it, we spend years learning stereotypes which become the foundations of our prejudices – our biased thinking. The first step is to realise that this can be a problem. Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy. We’re all happy to believe that other people may be biased, but we resist any suggestion that we may be biased ourselves. So it’s not surprising that it’s so difficult to identify positive results from “diversity training.” (And some researchers are beginning to suggest that such training can actually be counterproductive.)

Where micro-messages happen

Micro-messages happen (in our experience) in two contexts: in meetings and other gatherings; off sites, team events, everyday interactions between employees. And in more formal settings like reviews, performance and talent calibrations and promotion discussions.

The context influences the methods for dealing with this issue but both broad contexts have common elements. Micro-inequalities are most likely to happen when leaders are making decisions quickly without reflection, when stressed, when they are eager to close an issue off, or are multi-tasking.

To help mitigate the impact of these unconscious behaviours we use a model which combines bringing awareness of the behaviours and their impact and using the brain’s unconscious processing to mitigate the behavioural habit. Interventions using the model raise awareness, emotional engagement and an understanding of how our brain works. We call the model head, heart and brain and it helps leaders notice, become motivated to act and helps them and HR to design processes and prime the brain to follow the ‘right’ behaviour.

Using the head heart brain model

The head raises awareness whilst acknowledging that awareness is not enough to make change happen, this ‘aha moment’ for people (leaders as well as those experiencing micro-inequalities) works best when it is activated together with the heart, and creates an emotional reaction. By generating an emotional response, the ‘intervention’ also generates motivation to change.  For example, when a leader’s awareness is raised by hearing stories of how micros-inequalities have impacted negatively, on the careers of people in the organisation. Examples of raising emotional awareness include anonymised audio recordings allowing people to keep their identity shielded even from us, the advisors, or the collection and sharing of stories on the impact of micro-inequalities. (When read by the leaders themselves in a workshop setting this deepens the emotional response as it places them ‘in the shoes’ of the experiencer.) We have also developed an intervention using the warmth and competence research by Susan Friske and Amy Cuddy to show leaders, in for example, a calibration meeting how they make judgements based on little or no data but rather on their perceptions of people and stereotypes.

Process and priming

Once people are emotionally engaged we use an understanding of how their brain works to provide two types of brain based intervention: one type are process changes that help leaders ‘do the right thing’. These types of changes slow down decision making enabling the system 2 rational brain to come on line. Interventions might include recording a promotion meeting and replaying dialogue that makes biased and unchecked assumptions. Or having someone be the ‘conscience’ in the room to slow down decision-making and bring awareness to unconscious thought processes which contain stereotyped reactions.

Recruitment systems which sift for gender based requirements and language and present a short list without flagging the gender of candidates is another form of process intervention.

Another type of intervention uses nudges or priming to direct the mind towards better decisions

This works because people make decisions using their quick, intuitive system 1 and without engaging system 2 to check initial decisions or associations. That is most decisions are made – mindlessly.

Priming also directs the mind to notice the context and the related information. The mind doesn’t search for information in a vacuum rather it uses whatever is around it as a reference point. If a prime or nudge makes the mind check assumptions or see women in a different light, without the stereotype, for example, it effortlessly shifts the micro-inequality.

Designing interventions

When designing interventions its important to check they are simple to carry out and that people are able to do them. By able we mean not just that people have the skills but that they are able to act without energy or the need to exert willpower.

To ‘audit’ policy or interventions consider:

  • Does it need a lot of conscious thought processing? “I have to consider 16 criteria for each person in the talent review.”
  • Is it physically hard? “Our policy needs 5 levels of sign off.”
  • Does it take more time?
  • Does it cost more money?
  • Is it going against the social norm? “In other firms Managers get to make those decisions.”

Decisions on talent impact both individuals and the human resources available to the organisation. Managing the micro-inequalities which arise in Talent can have a major impact on the moral in the organisation and the availability of engaged people to execute the strategy.



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