Blog Post

The Unconscious Bias Connection: Engagement, Culture Transformation = Business Results

By Vanessa J. Weaver
January 15, 2019

Over the last 18 months, there has been a significant increase in the number of corporations formally committing to explore Unconscious Bias and its impact on workplace dynamics and employee relationships. These efforts have been largely driven by the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a coalition of over 500 CEOs committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Each CEO has signed a pledge to take three specific actions:

Cultivate a workplace environment where employees can safely have an open dialogue on diversity and inclusion

Collaborate and share Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices and insights with other companies

Implement Unconscious Bias Training in their individual organizations

Many members of the coalition have made and continue to make significant progress in successfully implementing these three recommended actions. However, a growing number are asking, “Once our employees recognize and understand the different types of Unconscious Bias, what’s next? Is Unconscious Bias training enough to create more effective teams and, as a result, deliver better business returns?” These questions are fueled by the stark business reality that many of these CEOS and senior executives are still confronting increased pressure to improve safety performance, drive innovation, increase revenues and profits, control costs and enhance their customer experience.

We believe that in order to cultivate a work environment that truly embraces diversity and inclusion, culture change is required. We have identified three major elements that can drive this culture change:

In-depth Training: Unconscious Bias, Team Development, Problem Solving, Conflict Resolution
Honest and Robust Dialogue: Town Hall meetings, Roundtables, Team meetings, One-on-One Meetings
Applied Learning: Assigning real business challenges to inclusive, diverse teams and measuring their success

Directly addressing our Unconscious Biases gives us the opportunity to break down walls, destroy institutional silos, and develop more effective employee teams. Honest dialogue allows us to recognize, appreciate, and leverage our differences to create more innovative and effective solutions. In order for Diversity and Inclusion to become part of our corporate DNA, we have to apply these learnings on a daily basis in real work situations.

Ultimately, the success of any Diversity and Inclusion effort can be assessed by the increase in employee engagement. Engagement is defined as the amount of discretionary effort employees voluntarily bring to their workplaces and their roles. According to Gallup, there is a direct correlation between the level of employee engagement and a company’s business results: the more engaged the workforce, the better the business results. Engaged employees are the often-overlooked “secret sauce” to solving a myriad of business issues facing executives. The productivity that emanates from the incremental discretionary effort of engaged employees can have a profound impact on several key metrics, such as valuation, market share, quality, employee safety, and customer satisfaction. To achieve the benefits, all employees’ voices must be heard, contributions recognized, and value respected.

The enormity of the challenge to create more inclusive and diverse workplaces presents a game-changing opportunity for corporate leaders to position their Unconscious Bias action plans as a gateway to increasing employee engagement and transforming their company culture.

The Electric Operations Division of ConEdison, which serves 9,000,000 in New York City and Westchester County, has been involved in a cultural transformation process for the last three (3) years. With a commitment from its executive leadership team, Electric Operations initially provided its 4200 employees with Unconscious Bias awareness training. This training was delivered by its mid-level managers and supervisors who have direct, day-to-day leadership responsibility for over 80 percent of Electric Operations’ employees. These mid-level managers and supervisors were able to help their teams understand how to recognize Unconscious Bias and its general impact on fellow employees and its day to day operations.

Electric Operations built on that initial awareness of Unconscious Bias, by further training their mid-level managers and supervisors how to identify cognitive biases that impact safety, operational excellence, and customer experience. Not only did it invest in equipping these mid-level managers with tools to discern the impact of biases on these business pillars, but then, how to reverse-engineer and apply design principles to drive innovative solutions.

These results are transforming Electric Operations’ culture in measurable and transformative ways. This cultural transformation has

  • increased safety performance with many groups accident-free
  • developed significant cost-savings initiatives
  • leveraged innovative technology solutions
  • exceeded customer satisfaction performance levels
  • improved employee engagement
  • enhanced middle and senior leaders D&I skillsets; and
  • increased diverse leadership at all levels.

There were several key lessons learned in leveraging Electric Operations’ understanding of Unconscious Bias to increase more engaged employees. The top ten:

For sustainability, awareness of how unconscious bias changes how leaders approach their teams and people, results in more highly engaged employees and enhanced performance.

If you are a leader in an organization, it is critical to become self-aware of unconscious biases and actively interact with people who are different from you.

If you are a D&I/HR practitioner, invest in your knowledge of key business challenges and help connect which Unconscious Biases can help solve business issues. Partner with leadership to create a roadmap to actualize.

Employee engagement requires the recognition of bias and moving toward creating awareness and a structure that minimizes the impact of negative biases on the human aspects of an organization.

Having biases is human. Managing the impact of biases is a leadership skill that needs to be developed and requires practice.

Unconscious bias impacts the ability of an organization to fully engage and gain full potential of an inclusive organization.

Managing inclusion is a skill set that requires continual development, much like any other leadership skill set.

Individual skill level enhancement and increased awareness of inclusion and engagement are foundational. It requires an investment.

Highly engaged employees are one sign of a strong positive culture.

Take small steps, biting one piece of the elephant at a time. Recognize and reward small wins is critical.

Increasing the number of engaged employees requires resources, courageous leadership, and recognition that change is an iterative process. Moving towards a diverse, inclusive and highly engaged workplace requires long term Executive commitment and a willingness to accept culture change.

Authors:

Dr. Vanessa J. Weaver, CEO, Alignment Strategies, LLC. [www.alignmentstrategies.com] a management consulting firm and President of DITV Media [www.ditvmedia.com].

Robert Schimmenti, Senior Vice President, Electric Operations, ConEdison, New York.

About the Authors

Vanessa J. Weaver