It’s About Actions, Not Intentions

A few weeks ago I was invited into the Houston architecture community, to give a leadership level-only session, and big design thinking workshop—both on addressing bias in our organizations. This was not your typical diversity equity and inclusion training. We didn’t spend a lot of time defining terms or breaking down societal structures. Instead, we tapped into our own personal leadership self-conception, told stories and transformed our conference room into a post-it-covered war room for equity.

We have the best intentions.

Although we often have the best intentions—there’s limited evidence that the majority of bias trainings result in less biased behavior and more equitable behavoir, according to Iris Bohnet, Harvard behavioral economist and author of the book What Works: Gender Equality by Design. Bias lives deep in our instinctive minds, and bias trainings, which often target our conscious thought processes, don’t change those deeper patterns. Bias recognition trainings can sometimes even harm not help—they can result in a phenomenon called ‘moral licensing’ in which we feel more comfortable giving into our biases because we’ve ‘checked the box.’ Bias trainings can produce people with great intentions—but not necessarily the behavior to back it up.

We want to change actions, not intentions.

But there is a tool from the design toolbox that can help. As Bohnet offers—we can target how we act, and not just how we think. This concept makes intuitive sense to designers who spend our days influencing people’s actions through designing the roads they drive on, the spaces they congregate in and the products they use. We can design policies and procedures that design against bias, and keep us acting according to our best intentions—not our instinctive defaults. The points of light—the bias trainings that showed some impact on  behavior profiled in Bohnet’s book—leveraged a few strategies including the practice of empathy, which taps into our emotional brain (and is a necessary skill in human-centered design) and our social motivations.

So in my workshops, as small teams, we roll up our sleeves and treat eliminating bias as a design problem. We map out where bias might be happening in our organizations and then get creative, designing solutions to address it.

There are hundreds of great ideas for how to move the needle on racial and gender equity in our workplaces. Simply comparing CVs of potential candidates to each other, qualification by qualification, rather than considering them alone, can cut down on bias. We can run a pay gap audit to assess whether people with the same qualifications and experience are being compensated at the same level. On the personal level, we can look at who we’re mentoring and whether they’re likely to match our gender and race—and whether we mentor differently across gender and race. We can take a page from the book of one of my mentors, who leverages his visibility and credibility as a white man by committing not to serve on panels that don’t have gender and race diversity.

But when people develop their own solutions, they’re more likely to act on them.

People in my workshops develop solutions like assessing promotion candidacy based on lists of candidates’ accomplishments—with names removed… or new meeting facilitation techniques that give female voices a better chance of being heard. And when I challenge participants to come up with at least two ‘crazy’ ideas (being forced to get crazy stretches our creativity muscles so we can use them more effectively) they suggest things like having firm members switch roles for a day to spend a day in the others’ shoes, or having the firm give everyone golfing lessons, so this gendered activity—a power center for so much business exchange—is more accessible.

In my trainings we try not to “live” in the mental space of diversity equity and inclusion frameworks. Instead we orient ourselves in the day-to-day contexts where bias happens. We talk about our hiring processes, the way we do promotions, what our workplace culture feels like and what we do at the holiday party. These are the places bias happens and these are the structures we need to tweak and redesign.

And in my leadership-level only sessions, we start with our personal leadership practices—and then integrate ways of “being the change” for equity into our leadership approach and legacy.

We can often walk out of a diversity training with a new “box” of knowledge, insight and terms—the “diversity box.” But I don’t want my participants to have a new box (that doesn’t get taken off of the shelf very often.) I want them to integrate being a proactive agent of equity into their ‘leadership’ box, which they use every day.

We don’t need a new “box” to hold, we need to change the way we use our everyday box.

Because when individuals change their own practices—or push for changed practices in their companies—things change.

Each one of us has the opportunity to create ripple effects in our organizations. When we’re one of the head honchos, we can commission that pay gap audit or change the interview or recruitment process. When we’re still at the stage in which we have less organizational power, we can find and suggest minority-owned vendors and subcontractors to work with on our projects, and make sure our office events reflect social norms of all genders and races. It’s often more credible when these moves come from ‘unlikely’ sources—when a man champions better parental leave policies, or a white woman argues for equitable racial representation in middle management.

Many of us have the capacity to be this change—we just need to know what to do.

We’re living in a deeply biased society, and if we want to be part of the solution, we need to be actively swimming against the stream. Without a new set of practices and actions, work and life are busy—and despite our best intentions—our instinctive biases take over, and we end up reproducing the status quo.

Can you be the change in your organization?

What can you redesign to create new actions and outcomes in your company? Perfect is the enemy of the good—so rather than take it all on—what is one new action or practice you can commit to today?

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If you’d like to bring these design thinking for equity workshops or leadership-level sessions to your company or industry, learn more and get in touch.

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.