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Recognizing our privileges and deconstructing unconscious biases are crucial working life skills

23.10.2019

Only by recognizing our privileges and deconstructing our unconscious biases are we able to build a working life where everyone can be seen and heard - and truly be themselves. Then, and only then, can individuals and organizations succeed and flourish.


Brené Brown encouraged us to have uncomfortable conversations at the Nordic Business Forum

The Nordic Business Forum offered a variety of thoughts and viewpoints on diversity and inclusivity. Especially the message shared by renowned researcher, author and TED Talk speaker Brené Brown resonated deeply with us:

”If you cannot talk about gender, ethnicity and other different aspects of diversity and inclusion, you cannot lead in five years. If you are not having difficult conversations about hard topics that make you uncomfortable, that is the definition of privilege.”

Why do we need to talk about privilege and unconscious biases?

Unconscious biases are stereotypes and internalized perceptions about individuals or groups of people that are formed without conscious awareness. Everyone has biases or unconscious beliefs about different social and identity groups. These are based on how we structure and perceive the world and categorize, for example, different groups of people.

When we talk about privilege, however, we need to remember that it’s not about individuals, but societal structures. Everyone encounters difficulties in their lives, but the difference lies in whether or not they are caused by unequal and discriminatory societal structures. For instance, if you don’t need to think about something, like the colour of your skin, in your everyday life, that in itself is already a privilege. People who lack a certain kind of privilege are constantly aware of it, one way or another.

Why do we need to have this discussion? Because these themes/problems/societal aspects follow us into our work environment, as well. The best way to get rid of one’s unconscious biases is to recognize them, along with one’s privileges. Otherwise, conversation about the benefits that diversity brings to organizations will never be realized.

What are the benefits of recognizing our privileges and deconstructing our unconscious biases?

Recognizing and deconstructing our privileges and unconscious biases enables us to identify unequal and discriminatory situations and structures in organizations. These can be, for example: 1) name discrimination; 2) meetings where the more privileged person constantly interrupts the other, and 3) everyday racism and microaggressions in organizations. Minimizing or downplaying the experiences of marginalized people in organizations is an alarming sign of people not being able to recognize their own privilege.

So, what are the benefits of recognizing our privileges? It helps us to create psychologically safe teams and organizations, where everyone can be seen and heard. Psychological safety is an essential part of inclusion and a key factor in developing more diverse & inclusive, successful organizations. This also helps organizations recruit top talent and retain it – because diversity does not work without inclusion.

What can organizations do?

  1. Offer training on privilege and unconscious biases and foster an open conversation and dialogue about them.
  2. Measure and track diversity, inclusion and psychological safety in your organization – often the experiences of management and employees might differ.
  3. Create a diversity & inclusion programme in which the current state of the organization is mapped out and the goals and following points of action are planned.

What can individuals do?

  1. Engage in conversations that might even make you feel uncomfortable. Acknowledge and accept feelings that may arise and try to reflect on those.Be ready to accept that you don’t know everything about the topic. Be curious, open and willing to learn.
  2. When you engage in these conversations, never assume, downplay, dismiss or invalidate other people’s experiences. This way, you avoid breaking the other person’s psychological safety.
  3. Be empathetic about things that you cannot fully understand yourself. Just because you haven’t seen or experienced something doesn’t mean that it’s not real or cannot be the reality for someone else.

We assert that recognizing and deconstructing privileges and unconscious biases are among the most important work skills of the future – whether you are a leader, manager, HR person, or anyone else within an organization. We, at least, want to work in an organization where even uncomfortable topics are discussed.

Jasmin Assulin, Inklusiiv-team, jasmin@inklusiiv.org

Iina Salminen, Inklusiiv-team, iina@inklusiiv.org

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