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How to Use Improvisation to Address Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

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By Brooke Cartus

We spend our lives cultivating a tool that perpetuates bias in our daily lives.

What tool is that?

I’ll give you a hint… it’s between your ears.

That’s correct - your brain!

Since childhood, we train our brains to categorize EVERYTHING: shapes, sizes, colors… because the recognition of differences helps us understand the world around us.

So, how does this survival tool becomes a hindrance in the workplace?

Changing the workplace

We’ve all heard about Starbucks shutting down their espresso machines for one day to address bias, yet bias takes more than a day to shake.

To address bias, the first step is to (you guessed it!) admit you have bias in the first place.

We are all victims of the values and assumptions we bring into every environment - why would the workplace be any different?

Everyone carries bias with us every day, and addressing bias is a lifelong process. Remember that statistic that floats around every January that claims it takes 30 days to break a habit?

That’s where we start: incremental changes to everyday behaviors that transform a culture.

Improvisation is an ideal tool to lean into uncomfortable situations and create meaningful change that transforms individuals, teams, and organizations.

Change #1 Take a Pause

Improvisers are MASTERS of the pause. “Take a beat” in theater-speak means that we are quiet, look around, and allow the moment to happen.

In uncomfortable situations, it’s critical to take a moment to address what is happening in the situation, and let your brain catch up with your behavior.

Become a pro at reading a situation without allowing your stress hormones to make decisions for you. Be the master of the stage, and your own actions.

Change #2 Treat Everyone Equally. Really.

Improvisers walk on stage with no props. No set. No costumes. We are all on an equal playing field, set with all the same tools: our brains and our bodies.

Are you setting the stage for equality?

Let me give an example: are you asking the folks on your team the same question when you walk in every morning? Is it the same for EVERY person?

In working with a people leader, he discovered that he was asking every member of his team how their weekend was, except the one member of his team who was a gay man.

He confessed that he didn’t really know how to ask him about his weekend, even though he had a spouse and children just like everyone else on the team.

After discovering this misstep, the leader candidly addressed and took responsibility for what seemed like a “small” thing.

In following up with this leader, we learned that this leader built better connections and communication with his employee by making him feel welcome, and that this employee was now the most productive on his team.

Change #3: Invest in your Team

In improvisation, if we don’t invest in our teams, we are doomed.

Moving as an individual comic on stage is guaranteed way to lose your audience (and to make your teammates downright furious.) Don’t be a showboat in a team sport!

Research published in Forbes shows that organizations who invest in connections on their teams survive economic downturns more resiliently.

Yet over 40% of managers claim they are “too busy” to make time for diversity initiatives.

If you as a people leader, say “we don’t have time for investments in diversity,” you’re alienating diverse talent pools that won’t feel welcome in your organization and hurting your own bottom line.

Conclusion

Nothing changes overnight, and the assumptions we make about those around us every day are hard to crack in just one training or one day.

It's a process - you can take an hour, an afternoon, a full day, to learn about how the secrets of the stage can unlock your ability to treat everyone with equity and respect. 

Brooke Cartus is the Director of Business Development and Senior Facilitator for ImprovEdge. A licensed attorney, Brooke’s passion lies in developing and delivering dynamic and engaging Diversity and Inclusion programming for executives, emerging leaders, and teams.