Failure: The key to success in overcoming bias

Talent leaders must channel their fears effectively to demystify how to approach equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Growing up, one of us (Joanne) went to an ice skating summer camp. During the first lesson, the instructor took a string of wobbly, nervous nine-year-olds into the middle of the rink, lined them up, and told everyone to fall.

“The scariest part is falling,” they said. “You will never learn to skate if you are afraid to fall. So, fall to get falling out of the way and then learn to skate.”

By the end of summer, campers were speed skating backwards around the Olympic-sized rink.

Fear of falling is always with us. Anxiety has been especially high throughout the past year as we’ve worked with senior leadership teams on driving greater equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in their organizations.

What if I offend a colleague? How can I prevent engaging in micro-aggressions? How can I be a leader of EDI when I don’t understand the lived experiences of people?  These are some of the questions leaders ponder.

We, too, carry fear as we help leadership teams navigate these turbulent waters. We know that channeling our fears effectively to demystify how to approach EDI as a leader can lead to positive outcomes. In that spirit, here are several actions that can help nervous leaders make progress on EDI:

  • Name your fears. One of us recently coached a CHRO who was struggling with how to bring people back to the office during the pandemic in a safe and equitable way. We asked, “What are you most afraid of in this situation?” The leader said, “I cannot live with the fact that my decision might cost someone their life.” With that fear verbalized, the leader’s demeanor changed, making it possible to decide what to do next. As you lead interventions on longstanding, systemic issues like EDI, accept that progress won’t be made simply by reading a book or taking a workshop. Rather, EDI work is a journey filled with missteps, backsliding and doubt – and ultimately, progress.
  • Do something, even if it’s a small step. Adopt the 15 percent approach suggested by Gareth Morgan and Asaf Zohar, which finds the compounding effect of many incremental changes can produce massive change. A community building activity gives leaders one minute to share a current story about actively standing up to bias. It’s a quick exercise but the cheers that follow every story, no matter how large or small, remind us that when it comes to combatting bias, every action has a meaningful impact.
  • Monitor your self-talk. When working to overcome fears, it’s important to monitor and modulate self-talk to ensure you’re affirming the value of small steps toward a larger goal. Ivan Joseph explores how confidence is a combination of skill building and self-talk in a TedX talk. When it comes to taking a first step in EDI work, combatting doubts about “what if I say the wrong thing?” is an essential component of ensuring we don’t talk ourselves out of taking action.
  • Seek out diverse sources of information and news. Managing confirmation bias (seeking information and experiences that support existing beliefs) can be done by proactively expanding the sources of information to which you are exposed. Consider tapping into different news sources for perspectives that might challenge your own views. Expand your horizons by learning more about EDI trends across the globe. Make at least one new, meaningful connection each week with someone who is different from you. Working across boundaries in this way builds allyship and helps keep us from getting stuck in static ways of thinking and acting.
  • Own any misstep. If you do trip up, take a moment to state the mistake and allow space for someone to respond – without making a mountain out of a molehill. This habit will help to build psychological safety and trust with those around you by consistently demonstrating trust and action.

One of us (David) once joined 10 other first-year graduate students on a skydiving expedition. The students saw people floating down calmly from planes that minutes before had been on the nearby runway. Skydiving professionals were practicing acrobatic formations. Skydiving looked so doable and pleasant and the students had trained in the classroom for this moment. Still, when it came time to jump out of the plane, skydiving looked and felt different than it did from the safety of the ground.

Skydiving, just like EDI work, requires courage, training, willingness to lean into discomfort and trust that desired outcomes can be achieved. As they say in skydiving, “Those who don’t jump will never fly.” And those who don’t take the leap into EDI work will never realize the full potential of leveraging human diversity, creating equitable opportunities for all and embracing the compounding power of inclusion.