Mitigating Bias to Build Successful Teams

Nicole Calhoun experienced the pain of racial discrimination at an early age. She was playing in a park with another little girl, when an adult walked up, called her a nasty name, and took her friend home. “I asked my mom what the word meant, and a sad look came across her face,” said Calhoun. Fortunately, her mother explained things in a way that didn’t make her feel different – because every individual is unique.

That’s an important lesson in life as Calhoun emphasized to IAUG members in a May 6 webcast, “Mitigating Unconscious Bias to Build Successful Teams,” for IAUG’S Empowering Women in Technology Community. The session gave attendees a chance to ask questions, while networking and learning about IAUG’s Women in Technology initiative.

A John Maxwell Team certified speaker, trainer and coach, Calhoun is passionate about helping women advance their careers and gain leadership roles in STEM fields.

In her talk, Calhoun focused on the problem of unconscious bias and the benefits of expanding one’s thinking to look at individual differences from a positive perspective – especially when building teams.

“Bias is unfairly supporting or opposing a particular person or thing due to the influence of personal opinions,” Calhoun said. “It is usually unconscious as the brain takes emotional shortcuts, creating blind spots in one’s thinking.”

However, that unconscious bias may show up in words, gestures, facial expressions, postures, and even the tone of one’s voice, which can influence whether others feel included or excluded in the workplace. Of course, those biases can also affect recruiting, hiring and promotion decisions as well.

Without conscious awareness, these biases can lead to an “insider” versus “outsider” culture in the workplace, where some individuals feel their voices are not heard or respected by everyone.  “Insiders may not be aware of their privileged status, but the outsiders certainly understand their position,” Calhoun said. “They may have to prove their skills and abilities to a much greater extend than the insiders.”

When Calhoun asked about their IT workplace, most attendees agreed that diversity was a desirable goal, but that women, and racial and ethnic minorities continue to be under-represented in technology fields.  Addressing that issue, IAUG board member Lori Wodrich commented, “IT decisions affect diverse groups, so having diverse input provides more positive results.”

Other attendees agreed that diversity and inclusion are key considerations when building IT teams. “Diversity draws on a fuller range of experiences to think more creatively and avoid biased decision making,” said IAUG member Michelle Trang.

But increasing the diversity of the workforce needs to be accompanied by a conscious effort to create an inclusive workplace, according to Calhoun.  “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance,” she said, quoting Verna Myers, head of inclusion strategy at Netflix.

To create a welcoming and inclusive workforce, Calhoun encouraged IT professionals to take action, build bridges to others and find common ground, such as a shared sense of purpose. “You should also get outside of your comfort zone,” she noted, adding that unconscious biases keep individuals stuck in their traditional habits.

“Listen, learn and lead,” Calhoun said. “Become an advocate or ally for the outsiders in your workplace. Don’t just plan for change – be the change!”

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