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July 09, 2024

Is your workplace D&I program stuck? Try conscious inclusion

Unlike unconscious bias training, conscious inclusion training puts power into employees’ hands to create a more positive and productive place to work.

Unconscious bias training has long been a staple of diversity, equity and inclusion (D&I) programs in the workplace. Through a series of exercises, participants learn about the snap judgments their brain makes about people, based on their own background and experiences.

But there’s a problem with that. Traditional unconscious bias training can inadvertently make people feel powerless about something they can’t control: how their brain naturally works. We’ve experienced this at Cognizant, when—after D&I training—employees have said, “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do about my unconscious bias; it is what it is.”

According to two Harvard Business School professors, unconscious bias training can lead to more discrimination, not less, because participants may conclude that bias is normal—and thus unavoidable. And in a well-known 2019 study, researchers found little evidence that unconscious bias can be changed long-term, and even less evidence that such changes lead to changes in behavior.

Maybe it’s time to flip unconscious bias 180 degrees by using an approach that is basically its polar opposite: conscious inclusion training. Whereas unconscious bias is all about what we can’t control and what we should avoid doing, the latter is about what employees can control and empowering them to take inclusive actions. This is a complete change of mindset from the negative to the positive.

The definition of conscious inclusion

Conscious inclusion works off a foundational theory of positive psychology called “learned helplessness.” This theory postulates that humans and animals learn to become helpless if they feel they don’t have control over a situation.

With conscious inclusion training, people get that sense of control. According to respondents in a Harvard Business School survey (noted in the article linked above) of nearly 1,300 working adults in the US, learning that the brain is malleable and capable of positive change is the single most effective component of antibias training.

At Cognizant, thousands of associates have been involved in conscious inclusion training. We’ve seen the feedback change from “there’s nothing I can do about my unconscious bias” to “I appreciate the actionable strategies I can immediately apply at work.”

Making the switch to conscious inclusion training

Four key elements of conscious inclusion training include:

  1. Combatting micro-inequities. “Harmless” but mean-spirited jokes, consistently disregarding input or incorrectly pronouncing someone’s name—these subtle acts of exclusion are easily overlooked by anyone who is not their target. However, especially as they build up over time, they can impact people’s work and emotional well-being.

    Micro-inequities can be obvious—like making demeaning remarks about a particular demographic. Or they can be more nuanced— like greeting one coworker more enthusiastically than another or dismissing someone’s idea only to embrace it when paraphrased by another.

    Once people are sensitized to what a micro-inequity is, they can combat these exclusionary words and actions by asking themselves:

    • When am I shutting people out?
    • Who am I excluding from informal get-togethers?
    • Am I often encouraging and praising some people and not others?
    • Who do I consistently overlook?

  2. Maximizing micro-affirmations. Micro-affirmations are small inclusive gestures that can change a person’s entire experience and perception for the better. Examples include making supportive comments when others share comments in a meeting or discussion and asking others for their opinions.

    Any of these actions are such a small investment on the part of the employee—but offer an extremely high return, as they can boost morale and improve performance.

  3. Choosing which kind of ally you’re going to be. It’s a lot easier to be an ally when you know what one looks like—and that you can choose which type or types you’re most comfortable with. We educate employees on four ally types:

    • Sponsors vocally support the work of colleagues from underrepresented groups, especially when doing so will help boost those colleagues’ standing and reputation. You don’t need to be a senior-level manager to do so—anyone with privilege or advantage can be a sponsor to someone with less privilege or advantage.

      Examples include introducing someone to your network, talking about someone’s expertise who you feel is being overlooked, or recommending people for stretch assignments and learning opportunities.

    • Amplifiers ensure underrepresented voices are not only heard but respected. For instance, when someone proposes an idea, you repeat it elsewhere, giving that colleague credit for the idea. Or if someone repeats an idea that an underrepresented individual has previously proposed but without giving them credit, you say, for example, “Didn’t John just say something similar? I really thought his idea was great!”

    • Upstanders speak up if they witness behavior or speech that is degrading or offensive, and they take action if they see anyone in the company being bullied or harassed. Examples include pushing back on offensive comments or jokes, even if no one within earshot might be offended or hurt. By saying something, they make sure bad behavior isn’t normalized.

    • Confidants create a safe space for members of underrepresented groups to express their fears, frustrations and needs. Simply listening, offering support, asking questions and believing what someone tells you is a powerful way to provide support. Too often, people assume a bad experience “just couldn’t happen here.”

      Be sure not to jump in with your own personal stories. A confidant listens with the intent of understanding rather than the interest of replying.
  4. Creating psychological safety. Managers and team leaders can be taught to assess and improve the psychological safety on their team. There’s the direct approach of asking whether team members are comfortable bringing up problems and tough issues, or whether people on the team sometimes reject others for being different.

    A more indirect approach is to observe how people behave in meetings, email responses and other employee communications. For example, if you’re leading the meeting and join late, are people chatting or silent? Are many people contributing and asking questions, or do one or two people dominate the interactions? Do people freely voice differing points of view and ask each other for help?

    To increase psychological safety, managers and team leaders need to model behaviors for the team to adopt, such as actively participating in conversations; avoiding finger-pointing; being self-aware about their own susceptibility to bias and course-correcting; providing honest feedback; and welcoming feedback themselves.

Choosing a conscious approach to inclusion

Just as many psychologists have shifted to a focus on empowerment and well-being, so should D&I programs. When leaders teach people what they can do to boost their team’s feelings of inclusion, employees are empowered to play a major role in creating a more positive and productive place to work in which everyone feels they belong.

Holly Camlin
Associate Director, Global Diversity & Inclusion, Cognizant
Holly Camlin

Holly is an Associate Director on the Global Diversity & Inclusion team. In this role, she focuses on business enablement, as well as creating and implementing trainings on psychological safety, allyship in action, micro inequities and micro affirmations, and more.

Sreedevi Palit

India Leader- D&I, Member of Cognizant Global D&I Team

Sreedevi Palit

As a core member of Cognizant’s Global D&I team, Sreedevi is D&I leader for India, responsible for driving strategy, building a culture of inclusion, incorporating regional nuances and supporting client narratives. She also provides strategic guidance to D&I training, and influences behavioral and mindset shifts.

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