Communication takes place at many levels. The words we say, the tone and inflection we use, body language, and even more subtle indicators of how we are feeling or what we are thinking. Those are considered micro-behaviors – small positive or negative acts driven by unconscious biases that can impact inclusion. Here, Kevin Dalby, professor at the University of Texas in Austin, discusses how small behaviors make a big difference to inclusion and offers suggestions for organizations wanting to promote diversity.
While the idea of micro-behaviors has been around for decades, popular culture has lately hyperfocused on these subtle indicators.
As our civilization continues to evolve, it helps to better understand and bring awareness to any behavior that defeats our goal of a more inclusive and organically diverse society. Assuming that diversity and inclusion are synonymous neglects the underlying causes of discrimination and robs diverse populations of the support and inclusion they need to overcome biases, focusing on micro-behaviors as anything more than an indicator is not productive.
Medical science understands that focusing on the symptoms of a disease will not lead to a cure. Only learning about the cause of the malady will bring progress toward a remedy. Knowing the symptoms is crucial, but only as far as that understanding aids in the diagnosis. Micro-behaviors that promote exclusion of any person or group is but the symptom. The symptoms will dissipate naturally as the cure is applied.
Organizations wishing to promote the inclusion of all groups should focus on the following four areas.
Work From the Top Down
Excluding others, such as individuals with a different pay grade, gender, race, or religion, is a learned behavior. The same can be said about exclusion’s opposite, inclusion. Employees who see the C-suite execs treating all employees, regardless of their position in the company, will tend to adopt that behavior as equals at a human level.
Drawing attention to the symptom – in this case, a micro-behavior – can illuminate the underlying problem. An executive who tends to use the popular acronym TLDR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) when referring to subordinates’ emails could use a reminder that behavior such as that implies she is more important than the sender. Such action will be replicated down through the organization, and soon a caste system is created.
Proactively Seek Diverse Opinions
Employees leave their jobs because they feel overlooked and unappreciated. By insisting that everyone throughout the organization is heard, micro-behaviors such as cutting others off mid-sentence will fade away. Everyone from the penthouse to the loading dock can learn that all ideas are worth hearing, and every opinion matters.
Talk About Perceived Inequalities
An open and honest discussion about what may be perceived as inequality will often avoid future problems. Suppose that in your company males, on average, earn more than females. Faced with this fact alone, female employees may assume that a gender pay gap exists and is endorsed by management. A discussion about this topic may unveil an issue that needs to be corrected or reveal a false perception once all the relevant information is considered. Refusing to discuss potentially difficult issues will invariably lead some people to assume their worst suspicions are correct.
Examine Areas Where Bias May Exist
There is ample evidence that unintentional biases can manifest themselves in the hiring process. Without trying to exclude any group of individuals, hiring managers may subconsciously select only those candidates who fit their preconceived notion of who will fit the company culture. Teaching human resource professionals to self-examine for biases and re-envision what a successful candidate looks like can correct this micro-behavior.
About Kevin Dalby
Dr. Kevin Dalby is a chemistry professor and medicinal chemistry professor in the College of Pharmacy, Department of Oncology at The University of Texas in Austin. He is researching the mechanisms of cancer cell signaling to develop targeted therapeutics. Dr. Dalby’s efforts were recognized by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Institutes of Health, granting him nearly $5 million to support his research.