How Allies Can Make Room For New Ideas

This is a post I co-wrote with Lynn Winterboer and Mary Striby Chang as a follow up to the second annual Women In Agile event. Grateful for the ideas we crafted together. Looking forward to many more collaborations with them in the future. Original post can be found on the Agile Alliance blog.

In any given moment, we are faced with around 11 million pieces of information. Of those bits of info, the brain can only process 40 at a time. If that’s the case, what do we do with the remaining 10,999,960 pieces? According to Timothy Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, the brain uses past knowledge to create shortcuts and make assumptions about the rest.

Those assumptions are commonly referred to as unconscious biases.

Bias can show in a variety of ways. Ordering the same meal over and over at the same restaurants because we know it tastes good. Buying clothes from the same stores because they usually fit the way you want. Teaming with the same people at work because we are comfortable with past interactions.

This topic and others were discussed at the second annual Women in Agile event at this year’s week-long Agile Alliance conference in Orlando.

During the open space session, Declan Whelan suggested a topic titled Helping Men Become Better Allies.

“I am married to a feminist and my daughter is a kickass feminist,” he said. “And I come from Canada where our male Prime Minister self-identifies as a feminist. And yet as a man, I struggle with how to be a good ally for women.”

One of the women participants started the conversation with anecdotes about being regularly talked over, and even offering ideas that appear to get ignored yet a few minutes later when a man says something quite similar everyone applauds the idea.  It was insightful to watch the faces of the women in the group as they either lit up in anger or sadly nodded in agreement that they, too, had experienced that slight.

Our female colleagues face issues in the workplace that erode their influence and self-confidence and are a detriment to a team’s progress and diversity. The recent Google diversity memo scandal shows us how in environments where people are debating whether women have the chops to be in tech, those of us that know better need to be better allies.

Why does this happen?

Some unconscious biases can lead to behaviors that sap a work environment of safety, which has been linked to many anti-patterns. A capable coworker being marginalized by not being invited to important meetings because “I just forgot to invite her.” Frequently being interrupted or talked over leads to her assuming her ideas aren’t valued so she stops sharing them. Not speaking up when uncomfortable language is being used because she doesn’t want to be thought of as “over-sensitive.”

There was a time when supporting women and minorities in the workplace meant just doing your best to avoid those and so much more anti-patterns. Unfortunately, today’s climate requires more to become an active ally.

We must make room for everyone’s voices in the workplace and make our support explicit. Here are a few examples to consider.

Make room in conversation

Far too often, meetings are exercises in waiting to speak and never listening to each other. We have become reliant on follow up meeting notes or slide decks to remind ourselves of what we discussed instead of taking the time to listen. This manifests in people not leaving space in the conversation for acknowledgment and letting all voices participate.

Next time you hear a teammate make a statement you agree with, take the time to acknowledge and repeat what she said. It seconds the notion and reemphasizes it for those less aware. This technique can also be contagious, and encourage everyone in the room to slow down their response and validate the thoughts of others.

Some have used a physical object to indicate who “has the floor,” to more directly encouraging listening and slower responses. By the time the item gets around to the one requesting it, the previous thought sinks in.

Making room for these voices can have a lasting impact on team dynamics. It creates a level playing field for interaction and will pay off during ideation sessions. While the emotions of team dynamics aren’t the only consideration, giving them some TLC will have a domino effect.

Make room for ideas

Far too often, I’ve seen extroverted speakers unintentionally step on the toes of others during conversation. Just like the previous section, this is caused by not making room for everyone. A perfectly valid idea can be dismissed by someone moving on to their idea before stopping to acknowledge the previous. Someone is skipped during stand ups and the group just moves on without apologizing for the faux pas. An insensitive comment is ignored or quickly passed over with an uncomfortable giggle.

These moments are almost never intended to hurt those around us, yet can cause lasting damage if not dealt with in the moment.

The most important tactic in these situations is to catch yourself and apologize if you participate in something like this.  Quick self-management goes a long way in changing habits and becoming more intentionally inclusive.

If you notice another person overshadowing quieter voices, use it as an opportunity to provide gentle and direct feedback. “I’m sure you didn’t intend this to happen, but that comment didn’t feel appropriate because…”. This allows the offending party to understand that you believe the best in their intentions, but still offer a chance to correct the behavior next time and preserve some of everyone’s dignity.

It can also be beneficial to create a “safe word” as part of your team norms. It can be a word not used in normal conversation, like “jellyfish”, or a blatant acknowledgment of pain, like “ouch”. This allows teams to directly address something inappropriate without having to specifically call someone out by name. The team can then rewind the conversation to the trigger and correct almost immediately.

Imagine the safety that can be built by feeling free to politely address delicate moments so much they get used to it!

Make room for diverse mentors and mentees

One of the greatest examples of unconscious bias in the workplace is choosing people that look and sound like us with whom to team up. Again, the best of intentions usually accompanies this behavior. It also, unfortunately, creates an echo chamber for ideas and does not allow for diverse ideas to grow.

Some men are afraid of the optics of mentoring or spending time with up-and-coming women in their organization. This “benevolent sexism” really holds back young women who don’t receive that one-on-one opportunity that their male colleagues get because it doesn’t come with any implications.

When searching for a mentor/mentee relationship, try looking for someone different than yourself. The more diverse the relationship to each other, the more potential you can find for diverse growth in both your lives. This encourages us all to address any potential biases we have and meet them head on instead of running the other direction. If you’ve not had a mentor or mentee who was a different race or gender from you, it can feel intimidating. Just acknowledge this and add that you chose this person because you value their expertise and ability to challenge some assumptions you’ve had for a long time.

It also causes a deeper understanding for those different than you, and an appreciation for the growth you hope to achieve.

Is all this necessary?

By not acknowledging these issues in the past, we’ve allowed these biases to become “normal”. When that happens, nobody speaks up to correct the behavior. We all know this happens every day in our offices, and we must all take responsibility for correcting it. The better of an ally we can be to others who are not like ourselves, the more we grow together.

What other ideas can you share that help men how to become better allies to the women they work with?


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