Do you believe that:

  1. People can change as a result of their experiences, or
  2. People have fixed personalities, and are hard to mould

If you believe the first statement, then you are more likely to stand-up against bias, and confront it.

Right after we hear a racist or sexist remark, we have two options: confrontation or silence. Not all of us resist. But some of us readily do. Prof. Aneeta Rattan, London Business School, set out to study the latter by asking what helps us fight against discriminatory behavior at our workplace.

Her theory: if you believe that people can change, then you would speak up as a way to express your disagreement with the biased comment, as well as bring about change in the other person’s mindset.

She studied 464 minority groups, and found that those who confronted bias:

  • Harbored less negative feelings towards the offender
  • Maintained or increased their sense of belonging at work
  • Reported more self-confidence and satisfaction in their workplace

The onus of confrontation should not rest on minority groups alone. So, leaders can urge everyone in an organization to take on the responsibility by following practices like these:

  1. Inquire, not argue. Keep calm, and ask a question. Deb Lui, VP of Facebook Marketplace, says Asking for a deeper level of detail and understanding pushes us to challenge those notions.”
    Lui shares an example of a coworker telling her that her meetings were ‘very gossipy’. On being asked what he meant, he replied, “Your meetings are casual in the beginning… everyone chats for a while. You would benefit by getting down to business faster.” She appreciated the feedback, and asked if he would call a male coworker gossipy. To that he said no, accepting the bias in language.
  1. Name the behavior, not person. When angered by someone’s bias, we might call them names – bully, racist, sexist. Such labelling makes it their whole identity, and that’s often wrong. Plus, it’s not helpful if we want them to change. Instead, point out the faulty behavior that needs to change. For example, “when you joked about the culture of my country, I found that comment hurtful. I’m curious where that came from?
  2. Keep it private. We are all biased at some level – unconsciously too. It’s a natural mechanism our brain uses to keep us safe. Challenging bias is a way of training the mind to see things differently. It brings up emotions. So, do it via a one-on-one conversation, and not in public. It works better.

Addressing discriminatory behavior is both courageous, and risky. And it’s upto you to balance them both. Just keep your cool when you’re at it.

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