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Workplace conflicts cost billions annually. Here’s what leaders can do

A lawyer turned DEI professional points out that diversity, equity, and inclusion are human problems, not just a problem of policies and procedures.

Workplace conflicts cost billions annually. Here’s what leaders can do
[Source images: vovashevchuk/iStoc; naotake/iStock]

Research from The Brookings Institution found that inequality has cost our economy $23 trillion since the 90s. This number is staggering—but unsurprising. In fact, the real figure is likely higher. If we were to account for gender inequality, inequalities based on race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, ability, geography, and education, the costs of inequalities would skyrocket.

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In fact, workplaces are feeling the economic impact of bias and discrimination daily. Workplace conflicts—which are often due to unconscious bias—cost the economy $359 billion annually, according to one older study. Not to mention real or perceived discrimination costs businesses over $64 billion annually.

Unconscious bias is when learned habits of thoughts distort how we perceive, remember, and make decisions. This means our automatic associations with a person’s phenotype, gender, name, or some other attribute can trigger us into drawing conclusions about their competence, aptitudes, abilities, and demeanor. Regardless of how many blind interviews to improve recruitment, our companies will still, as they do, remain with the challenges of retention, advancement, and workplace dynamics.

Too often, leaders try to put a band-aid on unconscious bias, putting together quick, high-level policies to discourage discrimination. However, DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) is a human problem, not just a problem of policies and procedures. I worked as a lawyer before becoming a DEIB professional and there are very few laws or policies on the books that permit discrimination based on a person’s identity. Yet, we live in a society where disparities based on race, gender, and other human identities remain glaring. This is because despite changing policies, we have yet to change beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors.

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This unwillingness to change has cost companies tens of millions of dollars. We all remember what happened in Starbucks in Philadelphia, or the gender bias in the algorithms in the design of the Apple Card, or that Tesla discriminated against an employee of color and had to pay $137 million. Products that go through conception, development, production, and the distribution chain without anyone raising the alarm isn’t only a failure of policy and procedure—it is unconscious bias in action.

We need to acknowledge that unconscious bias is not inherent. We weren’t born thinking that darker skinned people are less competent than lighter skinned people or that women are weaker than men. We learned these things from our families, media, education, and surroundings. Each one of us has a very unique set of conscious and unconscious biases based on our own upbringing, education, and surroundings.

The best way to better understand how these biases impact us is by bringing mindfulness to what you actually believe. Embrace intentionality and notice what associations arise for you when you are around different types of people and the sources of those stereotypes. Was it in a book you read? A movie you watched? Something an adult said around you when you were a kid? This way we are building curiosity and letting go of belief systems that no longer serve you.

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Addressing DEIB from a wellness perspective, not just an HR perspective, can transform results. For example, my company has trained over 20,000 people in breaking bias using our proprietary mindfulness-based PRISM methodology. From HR professionals to bankers, doctors to lawyers, firefighters to coders, we have seen 96.2% of our students repeatedly say two things:

  • A mindfulness-based approach would help me reduce bias and conflict in the workplace
  • I wish I had learned what you’re teaching us in grade school

Once you take the time to understand your unconscious biases in the workplace, it’s time to practice, practice, practice. Donald Hebb, a well-known neuropsychologist coined the phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Once we become conscious of our unconscious biases and acknowledge how they may affect our decision-making, we have to make the choice to build new ways of decision making. Science shows that it takes anywhere from three to eight weeks to build a new habit. And to let go of old habits, we need to practice new habits. Working in a shame-free and safe environment is the best way to do this. The positive reinforcement from this type of environment permits us to feel empowered to truly see and transform our unconscious biases.

Unconscious bias is not only costly, it also fuels challenges in retention, advancement, and workplace dynamics, and is also the root cause of DEIB issues. Unconscious bias must come to the forefront if we have any hope of creating workplace cultures that are hospitable to people of different and all backgrounds, and in turn, conducive to overall company success.

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Anu Gupta is the founder of BE MORE with Anu, an educational technology company.


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