How to Navigate Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
This episode of the Inclusive Growth Show features Buki Mosaku, author, diversity and inclusion consultancy founder, thought leader and global expert in bias navigation for workplaces.
In this conversation, I was joined by a fellow author, Buki Mosaku. Buki is the Founder and Chief Executive of a London-based Diversity and Inclusion consultancy called DiverseCity Think Tank, specialising in workplace bias and diversity and inclusion consultancy. Buki is one of the world’s foremost bias navigation experts, and he’s cracked the code of calling out unconscious bias within the workplace and stopping it in its tracks. He details this in his book, “I Don’t Understand” Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace.
I was excited to spend a bit of time with Buki and understand his thought leadership in this area. Before diving right into the interview questions, I asked Buki to elaborate a bit more on who he is and what he does.
‘I am from London, West London, Notting Hill Gate. Basically, I have spent the last 22 years now, coming into a 23rd year, in a consulting capacity working with organisations all over the world. Originally in corporate development and sales and communication practice, focused on training and development. But then luckily moved into the space of workplace bias and navigating that more effectively. I just felt that not enough attention was allocated to equipping people with the skills to address it. Most of the training and consulting and initiatives in this area are primarily focused on awareness. Even when there is any kind of skills transfer, it’s more about management being more sensitive, but not enough attention was allocated to equipping people with skills, and strategies and skills to navigate. So, over the last six years, that’s what we’ve been doing.’
I asked Buki to give me a sense of the main issues he was trying to address through writing his book.
‘As a minority myself, I had been confronted with bias. So, I had, at least, experienced unconscious bias. It was confusing to me because whenever I say that people immediately think, “Okay, this is a Black guy, he has obviously been on the receiving end of racial bias.” And, yes, I have experienced racial bias. But the problem was that I got confused because I wasn’t sure whether it was my bias towards the majority or the majority towards me. Initially, I started off with it being the majority towards me. But then sometimes I say, “Well, actually, oops I got that one wrong.” And that started to play on my mind.
This led to me trying to address that and coming up with the idea of writing a book called “I Don’t Understand”. And the reason I called it “I Don’t Understand” was because whenever you are on the receiving end of bias, the overwhelming feeling that you have is a feeling of, “I just do not understand how this person could be so insensitive. I just do not understand the injustice, the incivility of this behaviour, and you are pulling it in.”
Well, instead of pulling it in, what if you could call it out? So that became the quest for me to understand how to call that out, and also just to understand the interpersonal dynamics that drive unconscious workplace bias.’
So, I know that one of the things Buki says is that unidirectional strategies for tackling workplace bias are creating a bit of a diversity and exclusion nightmare. I asked if he could expand on that topic.
‘I think you understated. I think it was a huge nightmare. I mean, it really is. If you look at the figures, if you look at the Fortune 500, there are only 53 women CEOs in the Fortune 500. There are only seven Black CEOs in the Fortune 500. In the Fortune 100, there are zero Black CEOs. Zero openly physically disabled CEOs or any disabled CEOs. In the Fortune 100, there are only three females in the most senior roles like CEO, CFO and COO. So, there is a representation problem and the unidirectional approach.
‘I should just clarify what I mean by unidirectional; it’s the one-way street approach of looking at a career stifling, unconscious bias, which is what my book addresses. It’s the one-way street view that seems like the right thing to do, but actually, it’s creating another diversity and exclusion nightmare because inadvertently it excludes the people that it’s trying to help.
If you say, “Okay, the problem is with us White, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied males majority, we need to sort it out and put some females in there,” what you’re doing is you’re not being collaborative. You’re being exclusive as opposed to inclusive. This mindset and unidirectional approach leads to what I describe as a guilty perpetrator versus hapless victim model. That is, you have these people who look a certain way, walk and talk a certain way. They are the guilty perpetrator. Then you have these people who look a certain way, walk and talk a certain way. They are the hapless victim. These guilty perpetrators have this original sin that they have to cleanse themselves of and change their behaviour in order to make the world of the poor hapless victim better.
The problem with that is it reinforces to the traditional victim that everybody who’s in the majority is a guilty perpetrator. So, you’re reinforcing a bias already. Secondly, you reinforce the bias that is one of the most destructive and most demeaning biases of minorities. This could cut across all the different minorities but let me do it from a Black minority perspective – they’re a bunch of hapless victims who can’t make it in this world unless you are empathetic to their needs and show them and give them a helping hand.
I don’t think that’s the right way. As a result, those figures that I mentioned to you are the way that they are because the people that are actually affected have absolutely no input in changing the game. And this is what addressing career-stifling bias has been built on for the last 50 years. So, to quote Mick Hucknall, “A new day has come.” I think we need to spend more time equipping people with the skills to navigate it. The methodology that I promote is a collaboratively focused called IDU.’
Before we talked about the IDU Methodology, I was just reminded by what Buki was saying that collaboration is one of the traits of being an inclusive leader. It’s something I talk to my clients about and I share a framework with my clients around mindful leadership and see if they get trapped in the drama triangle which asks “So, are you the perpetrator? Are you playing the victim? Are you playing the rescuer? Or are you an empowering leader? So do you take on much more of a coaching mindset?” As Buki was talking about bias in that way, it was ringing some bells for me.
‘That’s true, especially the rescuer, is what I think a lot of people have been sort of guilted into. It’s become a way of thinking. It’s great that we’ve had all these strides in diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it’s very important that we don’t lose sight of what you said there empowerment. You don’t want to disempower the already disempowered by excluding them from the process. And including them in the process isn’t just having pronouns by our name and celebrating dates. And eating different types of food and doing events with people. That’s great. Don’t get me wrong. Those are all important things, but we have to equip people with the skills to take control of the process. In essence, if I’m biased towards you, you should be able to call me out if you’re my boss. Likewise, if you’re biased towards me, I should be able to call you out. The question then becomes, “Well, how do I do that without getting your back up and you do that without getting my back up so that I can navigate it?” But at the moment, we just don’t have that. We send people to safe spaces.’
That’s certainly a term that I’m coming across quite a lot lately along with the need to create brave spaces. We might talk about creating safe spaces, but in a way, the problem with that is that we need to go a step further. We need to create these brave spaces where people feel able to speak up and, like |Buki says, call in, call out, and it’s unidirectional as well.
Buki also mentioned his IDU Methodology so I asked him to tell me what it is all about.
‘Essentially, when you’re on the receiving end of bias, you sense something. It’s always sensed if it’s implicit bias, otherwise, it would be explicit bias. So, you never 100% know. But when you sense bias, most people feel they can’t say anything. What they do, is they call it in. But that calling tends to have some variation of, “I just don’t understand why these people or this person is behaving in this way. How could someone be so nice and then be so wicked? How can’t they see this?” So instead of calling it in, what if you could call it out?
The question then becomes, “Well, what am I trying to call out? Well, I’m trying to call out my misunderstanding of the situation because I really don’t understand how this unfairness is happening in front of me.” So, I thought, “Well, what if I could say that to someone?” And that became the basis for the IDU Methodology.
What also became the basis of the IDU Methodology was an acceptance of the multi-directional nature of workplace bias. It’s not unidirectional. That means that sometimes, and as I alluded to earlier if all bias is sensed, I can misinterpret a person’s decision or a person’s behaviour as driven by unconscious bias.
When I make that misinterpretation and I’m wrong that becomes my bias because what’s my misinterpretation based on? It’s based on hearsay. It’s based on my past experiences, and it’s based on a wider narrative about the majority. So, my misinterpretation becomes my bias. To make the IDU Methodology work, step one is accepting the multi-directional nature of workplace bias. Something which nobody seems to want to do, right? What happens is that we have workshops and programmes and people will say, “Yes, we’re all biased. We all have biases. Think of a pilot,” and you think of a pilot and they say, “What you see is that you think of immediately as a White male, you don’t think of a woman, you don’t think of a Black person. You don’t think of a physically disabled person. You just think of a White male, a White able-bodied male. That’s what you tend to think of. We’re all biased.”
Then the training that comes after that is primarily focused on correcting, getting the majority to self-correct. But I thought if we’re all biased, the training should encompass all of us, right? And I don’t think what’s out there does. It tries to in a way, but it really doesn’t. So that was the first thing with the IDU Methodology. I had to come up with a way of calling out bias, navigating sensed bias, but allowing for misinterpretation. That’s what the IDU does. It’s based on what I describe as DDE: Dispassionate Developmental enquiry coming from a place of developmental enquiry.
It’s the purest, it’s the most unscathed place. When you say, “I don’t understand,” it tends to invoke, a certain reaction and the reaction tends to be, “What don’t you understand?” or “Let me explain.” That gets you into a sticky conversation about bias which you wouldn’t have been able to get into previously. And then the key is navigating that conversation using developmental inquiry.’
I touch on implicit bias in a lot of the work that I do. In one of my workshops, I use the definition by Verna Myers, who’s the head of diversity over at Netflix. She lives in America and is a lawyer by background. She’s done a couple of good TED talks, and in one of those she says that biases are the stories that we make up about people before we get to know them. I just love the simplicity of that definition because there are a lot of academic definitions out there.
Then I quite often tell people the story about when I was first on unconscious bias training when I worked for the BBC, I found out that I was mildly biased against disabled people. This shocked me because I’m a wheelchair user and I was born with my disability and my brother’s got the same condition.
I went to school with disabled kids. I’ve worked with loads of disabled adults yet I’ve got this mild bias. It just goes to show that this bias is the product of social conditioning. It’s me growing up in a world that’s been designed largely by and for non-disabled people. And if you just think about the messages that have been put out there through British media, then disabled people are often portrayed as victims, villains, or heroes compared to non-disabled people. So, it makes sense why these biases have occurred. It got me thinking at the time, “Surely there will be some unintended consequences now that I’ve got this awareness.”
I asked Buki to offer some reflections on that thought, perhaps based on personal experience.
‘You’re making me wonder if I have biases against minorities. I hope I don’t, but I’m sure I do. But I think it’s important to be aware of those biases if you have them. But I think what’s more important is being able to navigate your own biases and strategically position yourself in a way which enables you to deal with your own bias, but also bias towards you or sensed bias towards you. There are issues around representation for certain groups of people, and I think the fastest way to organically expedite the pace at which we increase representation is to empower those people who are under-represented.
Interestingly, to your point, the IDU Methodology has an inbuilt mechanism which forces you to recondition yourself and the other person by firstly recognising there’s a multi-directional nature to bias. This way you realise that you can be as much of the perpetrator as the victim. I think that’s important. Just by doing that, it makes me think of your story and it makes me think sometimes I need to check my own self. So that’s the first thing.
Secondly, in the process of calling out bias two things can happen. The bias towards you calls itself out, right? So, it becomes evident to the unconscious perpetrator. Or what happens is that your reverse bias calls itself out and it becomes evident to you that you are the one with the bias.’
One framework that I like to use is the SEEDS model that was created by the NeuroLeadership Institute. It’s an acronym that stands for Similarity bias Experience bias Expedience bias Distance bias and Safety bias. I find this a really good way of talking about bias without making people feel like they are homophobic or racist or ableist or sexist. Because if people don’t understand implicit bias, they can often mislabel themselves. We all have our biases, but if we take something like similarity bias, I mean, that basically says that we like to hang out with people like ourselves and that we create in groups and out groups. It’s something that is as applicable to me as it is to Buki. When I talk about it in those terms, I find people really understand it.
In Buki’s book, he draws the distinction between defensive fragility and white fragility. I asked if Buki could explain a bit more about the differences and why it’s important to understand them.
‘White Fragility is a phrase, a term coined by Robin DiAngelo PhD. She wrote a book called ‘White Fragility’ which was a big seller. And I don’t want to say any more about it because it’s sold enough already. But the basis of it is that white people become fragile, emotionally fragile and uncomfortable when confronted with the reality of racial inequality. That’s it. The book says that white people need to own up, or be more aware and break with the apathy of their racial bias, in particular, towards Black people. And that’s what the book is about.
First of all, I’m just going to say, commentators have latched onto that in the UK, the US and all around Europe, they check themselves, they check organisations and themselves for their fragility levels and all of this kind of stuff. Frankly, and I’m going to try and be professional here, right, I think that it’s nonsensical. The thesis is nonsensical. People get annoyed because you say bad things about them? “Well, hello, I get annoyed, no sugar Sherlock, I get annoyed when you say bad things about me.” So is that black fragility?
Whether they’re right or wrong, if you said to me black people and people like me have a chip on our shoulder, I might respond and say, “You’re damn right I got a chip on my shoulder. Never mind a chip. I’ve got a boulder on my shoulder and it should be a tree. You have no idea what it is to be a black guy trying to make it in a white man’s world in the US and the UK. You couldn’t walk a minute in my shoe, let alone a mile.”
Isn’t that fragile? Isn’t that the same fragility attributed to white people? Right? That philosophy of white fragility is a major example of what I describe as the guilty perpetrator hapless victim model, which is driven by unidirectional views of workplace bias. Saying that it’s one way when it’s not one way. What do you call my example? Black fragility? Actually, it’s not a colour fragility. It’s what I describe as defensive fragility. It’s the propensity for human beings to be upset that you paint them in a negative light.
It’s important to understand that it’s human nature to get your back up when somebody paints you in a negative light. Actually, the biggest obstacle to navigating bias at an interpersonal level or an institutional level is defensive fragility. It’s the propensity for people to get their back up. Because if I sense bias from you as my boss, I don’t want to tell you because you might get upset.
So, guess what I do? I don’t tell you. At worst, I don’t tell anyone. I keep it in, which is bad for my wellbeing. But what I tend to do, is I go to tell somebody else and guess who that somebody else looks like, they look like me. Right? They tend to be a Black person. And then they’ll say to me, “Oh, welcome. That’s happened to me,” which reinforces a bias about the majority. Now the same thing happens on the other side because we’re all the same. You might sense my bias because it could be palpable, but you won’t tell me.
What you might do, maybe three weeks later you have a conversation and you might say, “Oh, I’m not saying that. I’m just using it as an example.” And you might have a conversation. You say, “I’m really sympathetic with the equality cause, but sometimes these minorities sense bias, especially these Black guys sense bias when it’s actually not there.” And the other person will say, “Oh, yes, that’s happened to me before, which then reinforces the bias about ethnic minorities having chips on the shoulder and never the twain shall meet, and this is where we live.”
Then you’ve got boards who will address this by saying, “Oh, we need to do a bias awareness training so that we can make sure minorities are treated better.” Or, “You senior leaders or you majority leaders need to self-correct and check yourself.”
I think it’s important to spend some time on that, but not inordinate amounts of time on that when they don’t spend enough time equipping the minority and themselves with the skills to call out multi-directional bias, because we’re all guilty of it. It’s unconscious. Does that make sense? Did I differentiate between white fragility and defensive fragility?’
The way Buki has explained the difference is interesting and it makes a lot of sense. As I was listening, I wondered how does it work in practice and how can I call out this multi-directional bias when I see it or sense it within my world of work? I asked Buki if he could give people some practical hints and tips?
‘I think that there are a couple of things that they can do. First of all, determine what type of bias you’re being confronted with because that will determine how you respond. I like to break it down into categories. There is what I call simple bias that’s directed towards you. That’s the one that we’re all familiar with. Simple directional bias is a microaggression. Microaggressions are slights about your character, about your personality, about your ethnicity, right? And then you have complex directional bias. Complex directional is the stuff that you can’t put your hands on. You can’t, it is intangible. Maybe you’re not short-listed for a role or you’re never given a glamorous project or you never seem to be making partner, but you’re better than everybody else.
Complex bias is difficult to prove.
So how do you deal with it? Let’s start with the microaggression. This goes contrary to what most people say, but give them the attention they deserve, which is very little. From a steps perspective, the first thing I would suggest somebody do whenever you sense a microaggression towards you, is to give the person the benefit of the doubt, but still call them out, right? The way that you call them out is if you bat the microaggression away with a comment in kind, and then move on and enjoy your lunch.
I’ll give you an example. When I started speaking, people would say to me, “Oh, Buki, oh, you speak so well, you are very articulate.” I would immediately think and wrongly in many cases, oh, you’re white you’re shocked because I’m a Black guy. You don’t expect a Black person to be articulate. This was my bias, right? But this is what I would think. Sometimes it was the case, but I’m sure more often than not, it wasn’t. They just thought I spoke well.
My internal talk was, “Why are you so surprised? I’m a client-facing person just like you. I’m a graduate. Why are you so surprised? It’s just because I’m Black.” That’s what my internal dialogue was and I’d get all upset about it. But instead of doing that, what I would do now is give the person the benefit of the doubt. The person says, “You speak so well.” I’ll say, “Great, thank you. Thank you. So do you.” Then move on. Or I might say, “Oh, don’t sound so surprised,” and then move on. I don’t need to mix it to get into one. What that does is give the other person something to think about, semi-reconditions them, and you can enjoy your lunch. That’s the whole way I kind of deal with microaggressions and stop them from accumulating and causing the kind of distress that they can do.
So that’s one way for simple bias. And then the complex bias, which is the stuff in between. This is the stuff where it could be gender or it could be gender identity issues or any of these things that you can’t put your finger on. Anyway, you are not being promoted or you are not getting the opportunity, you’re not getting the same crack of the whip. I’ll give you the edited highlights version way to deal with that.
There are four steps. Step one is to set your mindset? So, leave the baggage in the lobby. We have racial baggage, physical disability baggage, gender baggage, neurodivergent baggage, sexual orientation baggage, baggage that you have every right to be holding based on what society and your sector and your workplace are showing you. You’ve got to leave that in the lobby. Then the question becomes, well, why do you need to leave it in the lobby? It’s because that baggage impairs your vision.
In the original Karate Kid film, and sorry for those people who are too young to know what I’m talking about, there’s a character called Mr. Miyagi. His protege is Daniel who’s scared because he’s been bullied and he wants to win one last fight. And Mr. Miyagi says to him, “Empty your head. Empty your head.” The reason he’s saying that is so that Daniel can have clarity. It’s exactly the same thing.
So, step one is to set your mindset. And the reason that you want to do that is so that you can move to step two.
Step two is to give the person the benefit of the doubt. However certain you are, just give them the benefit of the doubt. But here’s the rub. Call them out anyway. So, the question then becomes, “Well, how do I give a person the benefit of the doubt in terms of bias, which I definitely can sense, right? But then call them out?”
The way to do it is to use these three powerful words. “I don’t understand.” That’s it. Tell them you don’t understand. It’s the purest, most unscathed place you can come from. When you tell them you don’t understand, you ignite their natural instinct to give direction. So the person will then ask, “Well, what don’t you understand?” Or “Let me show you.” And now you’re into a conversation which would otherwise be sticky about bias, right?
The key is to maintain the developmental inquiry. I don’t understand type of conversation. And what you are going to find is that the bias, either theirs or yours in some cases will call itself out. Then what you can do, step four, is collaboratively work with that person to agree on the next steps. Very simple. And if their bias towards you has called itself out, work to gain what I describe as worthy recompense for your loss. And if it doesn’t work, if you’ve done all of that and it doesn’t work right, and the person is stubborn or doesn’t want to own up to the unfairness, for whatever reason, you now have a trail of a conversation that you can now go to HR and have.
That’s opposed to doing what most people do when they sense bias, which is they don’t say anything. They talk to other people or go to a safe space. And we end up walking on eggshells with that manager or leader because we don’t know how they see us or how we see them. If they bring a facilitator, the inter-mediator in, we don’t know where we stand. So I think these are two gifts that I hope your viewers and listeners will find useful.’
I’d love to incorporate Buki’s four-step process into the workshops that I do so I asked him if he could give me an example of a situation he’s experienced where this four-step process has been used.
‘Good question. I was working for an organisation from a consulting perspective and I sensed bias, in the decision-making process concerned with giving me business. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. Normally when you do these things there’s the sort of feedback you are given if the company’s nice, and you have to deal with the feedback. But I just sensed bias, to be honest. I felt that I did everything. I was clearly better based on the measurements and the criteria they were using. I thought I was better. So, I just said to the key decision maker, “For my own development, and this is an IDU-type question, what were the criteria used to select the company that you, are using?”
In the course of that conversation, when they shared the criteria, I said, “We met all of those criteria. I met that one, that one, that one, that one. So I still don’t understand.” Then he said some more and I said, “Well, we met that, and I still don’t understand.” And in the course of that conversation, it became clear out of all the criteria that he said, he didn’t say personality, which would’ve then made sense. All the criteria, we had met. So, in that situation, I said, “Well, look, by your own admission, we’ve met this criteria so how do we resolve this?”
Now they’d already given the business to somebody else, so, I said, “What I’d like to do for you, is a pilot of the type of programme that we can do. And I think given the questionable decision that you came to which you’ve agreed, I think that’s a reasonable request.”
He agreed and we did the pilot which they loved. They went on to do business with us, not to the complete exclusion of the other organisation, but we ended up getting more business with them. If you take that example, I followed all those four areas. I dropped the baggage which allowed me to ask the question for my own development. That invoked a coaching approach in the other person who was open to telling me the criteria. So we’ve got into a conversation. I didn’t make it a black thing, right? Or a class thing. I just kept asking questions, criteria-type questions, which is a form of I don’t understand, IDU.
In the end, the bias had called itself out. So, we were able to agree on collaborative next steps. Hopefully, people can take that and think, “Right, how I can use that in my situation if I feel I should have been given a job or I should have been short-listed and I wasn’t?” The worthy recompense is also a really important part because this isn’t about people being bad it’s unconscious bias. When someone senses that they become proactive in trying to resolve the situation.
As the sensed victim, you are advantageously positioned to capitalise on that proactivity. As a result, it makes it a lot easier. You expedite the pace, and you get what you want because that’s ultimately what people want. They just want to achieve their objective, have the career, business, whatever.’
It was time for the question that I ask all my guests which is, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’
‘Again, an awesome question. My answer to that is, to me inclusive growth means accepting and acknowledging the multi-directional nature of unconscious bias or workplace bias. Because when we accept that we truly become inclusive because we’re accepting that we’re all the same. If I have the propensity to be biased as a minority and a member of the majority has the propensity to be biased towards me, and we both acknowledge that, then our strategies for dealing with it are going to be inclusive by definition. But if we’re saying that there’s one bad set of people, and there’s one put upon-trodden people, we’re taking a unidirectional view. So, for me, inclusive growth is accepting the multi-directional nature of workplace bias.’
To find out more about the topics Buki has discussed there are a number of options. The Navigating Bias website has a 90-second assessment tool called the Mosaku’s Bias Navigation Test which will creatively assess and identify unconscious bias strategies that we use. Alternatively, go to bukimosaku.com where there are links to lots of resources and you can also order a copy of his book “I Don’t Understand” Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace.