What if the issue in your workplace isn’t unconscious bias, but a very consciously held prejudice, reflecting a stereotype that you believe is inaccurate and unfair, and that people on your team find offensive? What can you as a leader do about that?
The first thing to do is to manage your own emotions. Prejudice can induce a strong response: incredulity, disgust, rage, impatience, avoidance. Take a deep breath.
You can’t control what the people who work for you think. People on your team are free to believe whatever they want. But, they are not free to impose those beliefs on others. Your job is to work with your team to identify and articulate where that line is–what is OK to say and do at work, and what is not.
The trouble comes when you’re the one charged with deciding when the murky line between “freedom to” and “freedom from” has been crossed. This is one of the toughest challenges you’ll face as a leader.
It’s a leader’s job to create an environment where people can work with one another productively. Prejudice, a belief that some sort of false stereotype is actually “the truth,” is inherently disrespectful. It gets in the way of a team’s ability to collaborate, to honor one another’s individuality, to communicate across differences.
Pointing out a prejudice probably isn’t going to change it. When leaders teach their teams to hold up a mirror to a person’s bias, they typically self-correct. But in the case of prejudice, if you hold up a mirror, the person is likely to say, “Yeah, that’s me, aren’t I good-looking?” The person with the prejudiced belief doesn’t acknowledge the prejudice; rather they think it’s “the truth.”
What, then, can a leader do when one person’s prejudiced belief gets in the way of their ability to respect others on the team, or even creates a hostile work environment?
I don’t have The Answer to this question. But there is one thing you can do to improve your odds of arriving at a good outcome: create a space for conversation. When you spend a little time with your team talking about what is ok to say or do and not ok to say or do on your team, you’ll build an important conflict resolution muscle. You don’t have to come up with a rationale that would satisfy a philosopher in order to figure out how to work better together.
In this week’s episode of the Just Work podcast, Wesley and I discuss prejudice with Dr. Tina Opie. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts, or here: https://www.justworktogether.com/podcast-season-2