Show courage in addressing unconscious bias

Jolanda Prijs

Robert Walters sat down with experts from FranklinCovey to give you advice on the most pressing topics that executive leaders are currently dealing with. In this edition: how to recognize unconscious bias.


As increasing numbers of professionals prefer to join a company whose values are aligned with theirs, one of the major risks in the war for talent is falling behind on a good diversity and inclusion policy. For board members it is therefore of paramount importance to be aware of their unconscious biases, while new or aspiring c-level executives should show courage in addressing problems, says Jolanda Prijs, managing partner at FranklinCovey Benelux, in conversation with Robert Walters.

Unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion these days seem to be major topics both in our society and in organisations. Do you feel is it also a talking point in many board rooms?

“I believe so, especially for example when business partners start asking questions about the diversity and inclusion policy in place, or when this becomes a much talked about subject among the workforce. At the same time, c-level executives also find it a difficult topic, which can sometimes result in stagnation. They are aware they need to make progress, but they might feel like they don’t need to be the ones leading the charge.

This is also understandable, because let’s be fair: unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion; these really are complicated matters. It ranges from culture, to colour, to sexual preference to physical mobility and more, and there are not one-size-fits-all solutions for such complex topics.”

In your opinion, what are the most detrimental effects for businesses when the board fails to properly address these topics?

“There are a couple of things. For instance, research indicates that diverse organisations are better at innovation, collaboration, and are also preferred by employees over non-diverse companies.

But most importantly, in my opinion, is that I believe that employees who are negatively impacted by unconscious bias will fail to reach their full potential. Because they don’t feel valued, recognised, or even because they feel unsafe. They will enter a sort of state where they still make a contribution to the company, but that contribution is far off from what it could have been if they would feel accepted for who they are.” 

What kind of actions can c-level executives – or anyone for that matter – take to recognise their own unconscious bias?

“I would first like to point out that what happens in our brain during unconscious bias is actually quite useful. Simply put: our brain receives thousands of stimuli every minute. If it were to process each and every one of those, we would never get anything done. So the brain actually creates short cuts which help us take decisions in our everyday lives. 

Now imagine you’re a c-level professional and you have to take countless of decisions every day. You have to start asking yourself the question, even if there is no such indication: did bias play a part in this decision I made. 

This goes for both big as well as seemingly trivial decisions, such as what to hand out as a company-wide Christmas gift or how to celebrate a company party. Keep asking yourself the question: am I not excluding certain people. Start doing this as a routine, and you’ll make a big step towards inclusivity and a culture of belonging.” 

If you have just been promoted to the c-suite, and you notice unconscious bias playing a role in the decision-making of the board, how would you advice addressing this?

“It starts with showing courage. Realise that you’ve been promoted for a reason, possibly because you bring something to the table that the other members of the board were lacking. So don’t conform and be afraid to rock the boat, but show courage and address issues which might feel uncomfortable to bring up. A great way to do this is by asking questions. ‘Are we aware of this?’ ‘Could we do things differently?’ This helps create an open conversation.”

Boards of directors still tend to be quite homogenous. In such a group of people who are relatively alike, how can you make sure you recognise and address unconscious bias?

“It starts with awareness. Assist with establishing groups which can act as a sounding board, for example a group consisting only of young employees. Or pick up a mentoring role for promising professionals, or even let them mentor you. 

The easiest way, though, is to ensure that for the next c-suite appointment a candidate is picked who is complementary to the rest of the members of the board. People have a tendency to promote people who are like them, but avoiding this trap in your next appointment will also send a strong signal to all employees, as it shows diverse people can reach top positions, and these new leaders can also represent them.”

What is your advice for an ambitious professional hoping to drive change within on organisation regarding unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion?

“If the organisation you work for truly has the ambition to become more diverse and inclusive, I would say: go for it. If it does not, you need to ask yourself the question whether you are the one who can actually bring change to that organisation. 

If you decide to go for it, again, show courage. Raise talking points, actively start organising events, network, set up coaching sessions and team up with like-minded colleagues. And take it step by step. Many people are uncomfortable with change, so realise that progress will take time.”

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