I thought I’d take the opportunity earlier this year to delve a bit more deeply with the help of Layla Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy to reflect on the language and stories I use around race. It’s been an exposing time, having worked in the EDI and OD space for the past 10 years I thought I had an inkling of understanding about the constructs of power and systems that perpetuate behavior, but I realise my inward journey is much harder than the outward one.
Somehow changing a policy or process to reduce bias seems far easier than the searching examination of how my presumption of hope can get in the way of creating space for raw feeling and emotion.
But over the last month I have found two things that have really helped me make sense how I can progress forward with meaningful action.
- It starts with me
Dr Cathy Royal, Professor Colorado Technical University believes three things must be present for systems behavior to change towards systemic equality (individual agency; contact with others and awareness of what must happen next), describing the approach in her theory of Quadrant Behaviour. You may think individual agency for change is not an obvious starting point for a system change, but Cathy argues it is only when individuals take it upon themselves to change and be clear about why they want to, can change ripple out to a systems level.
I assumed I had made the decision to change (wasn’t it apparent I worked in EDI – on a daily basis I worked to build in fairness in systems and processes in organisations?!) but what I hadn’t done is realized how I personally was going to behave differently to achieve it.
This was bought home acutely several years ago when a black professor called into question my suggestion of courage coins to give people a voice in meetings making the point that a coin in an unsafe environment is just a coin not a voice. I realise now I needed to improve my understanding of how I am complicit in oppression before I had any hope of building processes to reduce or eliminate.
- Build a tiny daily habit that gets you one step closer to your goal
Improving my understanding of oppression felt a little bit overwhelming until I came across the work of BJ Fogg (a Behavioural Scientist from Stanford University). During the reflective journaling involved in Saad’s book I realized that there is one member of a small team I’m part of who grates on me every time they talk. I’m sure we can all think of a similar colleague, our eyes tend to roll, we switch off – I used to have a manager who would pull out her ipad everytime certain colleagues began to talk!
I realise on reflection of the courage coin experience that I am intentionally creating an atmosphere where this individual cannot be heard, why would she ever play the coin if she’d never felt genuinely listened to before?
Fogg’s research suggests, three things need to be present for us to change our behavior: motivation, ability and a prompt. I felt I had the first two covered, but it is the prompt (and Fogg uses an ABC acronym to help remind us) that has had the biggest impact over the past month for me. Using ABC I have been able to identify a small action to anchor a tiny shift in my unconscious response to this person talking.
My tiny daily habit this month has been to
Anchor: when this colleague starts to talk, I squeeze my finger on the table
Behaviour: while my finger is on the table I practice listening with compassion
Celebrate: as soon as the meeting is finished I think of one helpful thing they said and I smile.
The reward part felt alien and awkward but it is this bit Fogg believes most people leave off and is the most crucial. When we experience a positive emotion after an action we light up our brains reward system and are more likely to repeat the behavior, again and again and perhaps in time my colleague may feel safe enough to say what they really think. Tools like the 21-day inclusive habits challenge can help create a daily practice to deepen awareness triggered from unconcious bias workshops deepening the learning.
If you’re feeling like progress has stagnated, remember the words of BJ Fogg ‘if you want to create long term change, it’s best to start small’. But perhaps you’re reading this, feeling proud of your progress to date, if so, we’d love to hear, tweet us on @engage4success and share the #OneChange you’ve managed to make and let’s celebrate together.