This is our final article in our three-part series about the TU Leading Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Program. In this article, we tackle the difficult topic of where workplace stereotypes come from, as well as some potential solutions to this difficult challenge.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman outlines the two ways that human beings process information. The first, called System 1, is quick and requires little conscious deliberation. The second, System 2, is effortful and deliberate, and requires a significant amount of mental labor. If we use an aviation analogy, we can think of System 1 as autopilot, and System 2 as the manual driver who has the ability to override System 1 when needed.
As for why we need this duality, the simple reason is that we lack the mental energy required to carefully deliberate over every bit of minutia that we come across on a daily basis. Indeed, the human brain is roughly 2% of our body weight, but consumes 20% of our total energy. The mental resources that we conserve through System 1 are thus invaluable when we need to make truly difficult decisions (e.g., who to keep and let go during an organizational downsize).
When we are operating at our best, it is easy to determine when we can be efficient and rely on System 1, versus when we need to be careful and deliberative in our decision-making. However, like aviation, life comes with some unexpected turbulence. There are moments when we simply do not have the time to be measured and thoughtful. Other situations may be too emotionally charged for us to inhibit our intuitive responses. The result of these limitations is an over-reliance on intuition and System 1, even when the situation calls for more a more thoughtful response.
Heuristics and workplace bias
Unfortunately, our intuitive responses—efficient as they may be—are often the product of what we heard on the news last night, or societal stereotypes that have been passed down over several centuries. Related to his, another by-product of System 1 is what psychologists refer to as heuristics—or mental shortcuts that are used to conserve cognitive energy. Like our intuition, heuristics can help us preserve valuable mental resources, but can also lead to us adopting erroneous beliefs. For example, the Availability Heuristic relies on immediate examples that readily come to mind when evaluating a specific topic, often at the expense of more factual information. This is precisely why the average person is more fearful of flying in a place versus driving in a car, in spite of the fact that statistics tell us it is 10,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane crash.
Linking this to the workplace, the intuitive nature of System 1, along with the often-flawed rationale of heuristics can combine to produce stereotypes, bias, and discrimination. What we are consistently exposed to can have a meaningful impact on our decision-making and social interactions at work, irrespective of whether it has any factual merit or not.
So what, if anything, can be done to remedy these issues? In TU’s Leading Diversity & Inclusion Program, we will dissect the various solutions that are being tested to address these problems. For instance, we will outline the pros and cons of solutions such as implicit bias training, and examine the existing empirical research on the efficacy of this protocol. We will also work through case studies of real organizations that have managed to thrive with diverse work teams using unconventional strategies to combat workplace stereotypes. Finally, we will have a live discussion with local leaders in the Greater Baltimore and Washington area in order to learn how they are navigating these issues.