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Unspoken Bias and You: The Power of Micromessages

“Don’t worry, I’m still listening.”

“Here is the next candidate. Her resume is so great. Everyone in the department is excited for her.”

“I didn’t say she stole the client…”

Have you heard any of these quotes around the office? Perhaps you’ve said them recently yourself? Don’t worry, we are all guilty of using micromessages, or unspoken cues. Positive messages, or Microadvantages show a bias for, while negative messages, or Microinequities, show a bias against. In order to create and maintain an inclusive work environment, we should be aware of how these micromessages show our conscious and unconscious biases.

As a resource for attorneys in the Twin Cities, we hear from people about how others’ unconscious bias has been a major barrier to advancement within the profession and comfort at their current place of employment. The unconscious bias for some individuals, can lead to unbalanced access, and can truly impede professional development for others. As such, we thought it would be a great opportunity to bring in Stephen Young, of Insight Education Systems, who has literally written the book on micromessages (“Micromessaging: Why Great Leadership is Beyond Words”), to discuss the importance of, not only the words that you use, but also how you say them.

Below, we have included two examples of micromessages, to help set you on the right track toward being aware of your own biases, and to help identify those of others. If you want to know more, feel free to check out Mr. Young’s book.

“Micromessaging: Why Great Leadership is Beyond Words”

1. Introductions

The way in which you introduce yourself or someone else can have a major impact on the result of a meeting or relationship, because of micromessages that show bias, either real or perceived. Imagine you introduce two new colleagues to another co-worker in the following way:

“Hey, Sandra! Come meet our three newest department protoges! This is Hakeem – Harvard graduate, top of his class. Impressive, right? This is Michelle, she just got back from a year teaching English in Cambodia! And this – I’m sorry – I forgot your name…is it Meghan?”

Clearly, Meghan is going to feel a little down on herself, knowing that you almost forgot her name and didn’t remember anything that you had talked about previously. This may be the beginning of Meghan feeling on the outside looking in, which could cycle into not feeling comfortable sharing ideas or taking on leadership opportunities within the deapartment, which could ultimately lead to Meghan not being successful within your organization.

Instead, make sure to balance your introductions or allow the three new hires to introduce themselves. This will allow each of the three, to feel like they are on equal ground and have the same opportunity to succeed within your group.

2. Any other ideas?

Have you ever been in a brainstorm session, and say something that you think is insightful, only to have the moderator say, “That’s great. Any other ideas?” Mr.Youngdiscussed how we throw around words like great and terrific, to the point that they don’t mean anything, unless you back it up with discussion on the merit of the idea. By quickly moving on, the moderator showed a lack of interest, and by invoking the word other, he or she implied that they were searching for something better or an alternative option.Mr.Young says, that if a manager or discussion moderator takes time to offer a true reaction or assessment of merit of each idea, team members will be more likely to come up with ideas in a greater volume and potentially think with greater innovation in mind.

Still skeptical? Mr. Young led the following exercise, which is also included on page 161 of his book, that showed how much impact microinequities have on a person’s performance.

You will need a partner to do this exercise. One of you will be Person A, and the other Person B. Person A speaks and Person B only listens. Have Person A talk through each of the eight items in the columns below, starting with Segment 1, followed by Segment 2, making sure to audibly note when switching to the second Segment.

Segment 1Name/Tenure, Position, Responsibilities, Work Challenge

Segment 2Previous role, Organization, Responsibilities, Current project

During Segment 1, Person B should actively listen, with all attention to the speaker, including eye contact, smiles, nods, and audible “mhms.” During Segment 2, however, Person B should stop paying attention completely – break eye contact, check their phone, talk to someone else, and so forth. Now switch!

How did you feel while you were speaking in Segment 1? How did this change in Segment 2? Did you notice any differences in your performance in the two segments? Do you find yourself battling micromessages in your job or daily life? Tell us what you think!

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