I was confronted with my own bias this morning on the way to work. It was a “slap in the face” moment revealing how entrenched my worldview is. A visually impaired man made his way through our busy Waterfront station, aided by a walking stick. I was waiting for a Starbucks order, in close proximity as he started walking into a corner. I approached and asked if I could help. He was headed to the Seabus so I voiced directions to the transit pass scanner (turnstile) and walked with him to it. The last words I said to him were, “the Seabus is straight ahead,” along with a pointing gesture (!). He carried on and immediately started veering off track again. Another stranger intervened and walked with him beyond the turnstile.
Two things stood out to me moments later. First, the inanity of what I’d said and second, why didn’t I continue beyond the turnstile with him? I have a transit pass, it would have been easy. Reflecting after, I realized that unconsciously, I was stuck on the fact that I was already at my destination, I couldn’t go backwards, and something more, I was uncomfortable.
I wondered what more I could have learned if I’d been able to stay in my discomfort a bit longer
It’s not often that I – possibly we – get confronted with uncomfortable moments in this way. In this instance, my discomfort came from trying to find alternative language to help the man find his way. It was certainly a learning moment for me. I want to expand my worldview, not narrow it, so I’ve got to work on making the unconscious, conscious. When we succeed at that, we create the ability to choose how we respond. In this case, there were a few moments where I was aware. While I helped the man navigate to the turnstile, I struggled for the right words to say. I was able to say, “turn to your left,” which was helpful, but then I lost the word for turnstile. It was as if my unconscious self stepped in to say, “okay that’s enough work, time to go to sleep again”; it was a relief to get him to the turnstile and have my part complete. Afterwards I wondered what more I could have learned if I’d been able to stay in my discomfort a bit longer.
This is what each of us get tangled up in when we work to change our behaviour and form new habits (and sometimes beliefs) for the long-term. Whether it’s to uncover and remove an unconscious bias, improve a specific leadership trait, or simply to be kinder – the status quo (that unconscious part of us) presents a hurdle to get past over and over again. It can be even more difficult when that status quo is a shared experience among a large group of people, as is often the case in the workplace.
So what can we do?
At The Refinery, we apply three critical forces in the client organizations we work with. We create:
- Space for awareness;
- Willingness to be uncomfortable with others; and
- Communities focused on repetitive practice.
In my story, it was the few moments I had immediately afterward, still waiting for my order, that created the space for awareness; space for me to reflect and pay attention to what was going on around me and my reactions. There are so many ways to create this space, both individually and organizationally. It doesn’t need to be time consuming. One example: 1-hour a month face-to-face team dialogues on a leadership theory, discussing what it means and making commitments to each other to practice.
At a department or organizational level, creating a willingness to be uncomfortable can be tricky, because it requires trust. So we tackle it in combination with community-building. Whether it’s an intact team, a cross-functional committee or a learning group, we ask the members of the group to both disclose their own practice and ask others to do the same. The more people talk about what they are trying vs. whether they’ve been successful, the more open they become to learning, which translates into a willingness to experience discomfort in service of growth.
Finally, we build in repetition. How often do we give ourselves permission to focus on one thing and do it over and over again? The data we get from doing that, making small tweaks here and there, is incredibly valuable. It’s the difference between “I can’t do this” and “I’m not sure yet, but I’m learning as I go.”
It is never easy to challenge the status quo, particularly when it is unconscious. On a personal note, writing this article is a way to share my learning and discomfort with a wider community and hold myself accountable to act on it. This is one step I am taking to focus on my growth.
In what parts of your life, or work, would challenging yourself to be consciously uncomfortable help you grow? For more on our approaches to helping leaders and organizations change for the better, please get in touch.