Experts Say for a Better Workplace, Focus on Human Nature

November 3rd, 2020 by Drew Vass, Executive Editor

As national news sheds light on the issues of diversity and inclusion in recent months, you might be tempted to believe that a door and window manufacturer has no means for effecting cultural change, or that those issues can be locked out of the workplace by policy. On the contrary, “What’s happening outside in society is also happening inside your organizations,” said Kendall Wright, president of Entelechy Training and Development Inc.

WDMA CEO and president Michael O’Brien shares audience questions with Kendall Wright, president of Entelechy Training and Development Inc.

According to Wright, issues of unconscious bias are happening inside the workplace whether you like it or not—mostly based on human nature. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change the way employees see and treat one another. Meanwhile, business leaders have a responsibility not only to effect change at work, but to, “Leverage your influence throughout your community,” Wright suggested. You can do so partly by working to build emotional intelligence, another expert suggested.

Those might sound like subjects for a gathering of the American Psychology Association, but they’re just two of the topics that the Window and Door Manufacturers Association’s (WDMA) tackled last week through its virtual fall conference, in an effort to help members navigate a pivotal year.

With 11 million pieces of information flowing through our unconscious minds each second and our conscious minds lagging behind at around 40, “You didn’t choose to have [unconscious bias],” Wright explained in his presentation, so much as it’s hardwired into the human experience. As a matter of survival, over the course of our existence, “We’ve been conditioned to make quick judgements about certain elements of human character,” he explained. In other words—like it or not—to some degree, we can’t help it. “But you have to learn to manage it,” Wright said. When over and over we hear stereotypical assumptions—even when we know them to lack basis—eventually our minds take hold of those suggestions, he said. He then demonstrated the power of repetitiveness through an exercise in which he tricked attendees into calling the white of an egg the yolk (and not the albumen).

At the same time, while unconscious bias might be part of the human condition, that does not excuse leaders from accepting it in the workplace, Wright said, where those tendencies can not only interfere with such things as hiring decisions, but also cause some employees to feel left out of the big picture. As a leader, removing those barriers requires asking questions we haven’t asked before, Wright said—including some that might make you a tad uncomfortable. At a time when many ask questions of their employees such as, “How’s it going?” or “Need anything?” those basic inquiries, “aren’t going to get you anywhere,” he said. Instead, it’s important to drill down for more personal perspectives by asking employees what they’re experiencing that leads them to feel excluded from team dynamics. “We have to stop walking on eggshells,” Wright said. That doesn’t mean that leaders aren’t allowed to make mistakes, he added, but, “People will forgive you for mistakes made out of ignorance … They will not forgive you for mistakes made out of arrogance.”

Beyond the goals of equity and cultural change, there are plenty of positive consequences for an inclusive environment—including many that add to a company’s bottom line, Wright explained. For instance, studies show that businesses committed to more open, comfortable and inclusive environments, are six times more likely to anticipate change and to respond effectively, he said. They also tend to meet or exceed financial targets, are 70% more likely to have captured new markets in the past 12 months and 45% more likely to increase market share.

At the same time, once our brains are locked into a certain pattern of thinking, those habits can be hard to break, Wright said. They can also be turned inward, explained Catherine Sanderson, the Poler Family Professor and Chair of Psychology for Amherst College. Just as cultural biases find their way into unconscious thinking in the workplace, hearing preconceptions about oneself can lead us to make assumptions. With that often comes a belief that our basic qualities are innate and cannot be changed, Sanderson said. But that’s a misconception, she added.

In a presentation titled “The Science of Success: Understanding the Power of Emotional Intelligence” (EQ), Sanderson explained that people with high “EQs” tend to have a heightened sense of self and empathy, as well as are “able to get the best work out of people around them.” They do so partly by ensuring that everyone feels included and valued in the workplace, she explained. Those who are high in EQ are “very good at putting themselves in someone else’s shoes,” she said. “They’re able to get the best work out of people around them … they ensure that everyone involved feels included and valued.”

Not everyone is born with that ability, she said, but, “If you know your weaknesses, you can work on them.” You can also work to assemble teams of people who are strong on what you lack, she added.

In the meantime, Sanderson offered up 10 basic strategies for attendees to use for building a better mindset. She suggested that leaders focus on employees’ efforts—not abilities, because, “The reality is—effort is what’s most important.” She also suggested that when interacting, leaders should be certain to put their phones away, in order to focus on the person in front of them, including the sort of non-verbal communications that provide cues about how someone is really feeling. She also suggested focusing on your own cues, such as the use of eye contact, voice fluctuations, facial expressions and hand gestures—all of which convey bits of information.

“What you ignore becomes more. What you tolerate will soon take over. But what you challenge will change,” Wright said.

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