We’re all prejudiced and we need to admit it

There’s a point when reading Binna Kandola‘s latest book, The Value of Difference: Eliminating bias in organisations, when one could be forgiven for thinking that anyone involved in equality and diversity circles should down tools, go home and forget about making the world a fairer place.

If even the most liberal and open-minded folk are likely to discriminate, why attempt to stop it?

This book, as well as presenting cogent reasons why fairer, more diverse, more inclusive workplaces are both beneficial and possible, also casts the whole diversity arena in a new light; one that could have a major effect on how the issue is discussed and managed.

“The diversity movement has stalled,” declares Kandola in his introduction, arguing that it has hit its own glass ceiling and that we’re no longer progressing toward fairness for all.

Prof Binna Kandola OBE

When I meet Professor Kandola, it is to discuss why he believes this and how we can get diversity moving again.

It also happens to be to discuss The Apprentice Analysed, the blog about The Apprentice which he and colleagues at business psychologists Pearn Kandola have been writing for Personnel Today.

An early episode of the show happens to provide a neat example of how people’s prejudice radar is often flawed.

One of the candidates, Debra Barr, accuses her team-mates of racism for daring to suggest that choosing to have both people in a publicity shot from ethnic backgrounds might be excessive and unrepresentative of the product’s target market.

No matter what the rationale was behind her colleagues’ suggestion, to Barr they were being overtly racist and that was unacceptable. The colleagues were forced into submission, barely fighting their corner despite having a perfectly valid point.

“Not talking about prejudice actually causes more problems,” says Kandola. “This book is trying to make people understand that if we’re going to make progress in diversity, we have to start looking at ourselves and actually stop blaming. And people do want to blame.”

He continues: “We like to find scapegoats, we like to say, ‘That’s them – I would never do that’.”

Diversity has lost its energy, he argues, “through the absorption into the machinery of organisational life. It’s been legalised, proceduralised, standardised. And it’s lost it’s personal meaning”.

In the early chapters of his book, Kandola outlines not only how organisations are biased – even when they’re trying not to be – but also how the individual cannot escape their instincts.

Unconscious bias

“If I’m shown a photograph of someone who looks like me and a photograph of someone who looks different to me, a different part of my brain is activated,” he explains. He goes on to explain that the part of the brain which is activated by the person who looks different is actually linked to determining threat. “It’s an unconscious, uncontrolled reaction.”

To gauge someone’s unconscious bias, Kandola talks about implicit association tests, an experimental method that attempts to measure the intensity of a person’s automatic associations between two things.

When he took the test himself, Kandola was judged to have a moderate preference towards Asian people. Soon after, at an event that included lunch, he found himself sitting next to the only other Asian person in the group.

“My new awareness of my unconscious biases made me question my action. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, but I don’t think I was acting randomly.”

In the book Kandola explains that to simplify the world around us we create categories to which we can assign people and their behaviours. Once categorised, our social groups “maintain their cohesion by distinguishing themselves from other groups, but also by policing their own members.” Once in our groups, we compare ourselves to other groups.

By operating in a series of “ingroups” and “outgroups” we put people into crude us and them boxes, the former invoking feelings of trust, self-esteem and security, the latter creating anxiety, unfamiliarity and hostility.

Indeed Kandola even describes how, as diversity in organisations increases, it is often the strongest ingroup of all – white males – that benefits most. By holding the power in the organisation, this group has self-esteem and is naturally comfortable with its position.

As diversity in the organisation increases the group becomes increasingly uncertain about who it is dealing with. To cope with this, the ingroup provides more opportunities to those they feel more comfortable with – other members of the ingroup.

Most of us are even quite prejudiced about prejudice, illustrated by this paragraph from the book:

“Think about a prejudiced individual. The image we come up with is most likely to be someone who holds hostile attitudes towards another group. The attitudes may seem alien to us and the degree of emotion displayed will seem difficult to understand. We will believe that this is what prejudiced people are like and as we are not like that, we cannot possibly be accused of being prejudiced.”

The Value of Difference, described as essential reading for “anyone who leads a company or public body” by Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, makes a compelling argument for a re-think in how organisations approach diversity. It also attempts to provide a solution.

Asked how we overcome this unconscious bias, Kandola’s answer is surprisingly simple: We need to change our default position from “I am fair” to “I am biased”. The book provides a framework for how this simple message can be implemented at the organisational level.

“By setting yourself the goal to be fair, you can halve the level of bias,” Kandola explains. By accepting that we’re all biased, by understanding your own biases and by doing something about it, he argues, the diversity can make progress again. The book concludes: “It’s that simple, but it requires everyone to take responsibility for their own biases and not complacently accept that they are inevitable.”

Binna Kandola is visiting professor at Leeds University Business School

Title: The Value of Difference: Eliminating Bias in Organisations
Author: Binna Kandola
Publisher: Pearn Kandola Publishing
Price: £18.99
ISBN: 978 0 9562318 0 2

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