We all understand the value of heuristics. They allow us to come to quick decisions without bringing every fact into consciousness. Much like the muscle memory that makes bike riding an unforgettable ability, mental rules provide the memory of if-thens and what nows we can expect given certain circumstance, including the who is involved. But those heuristics also do two things we do not want: they act out our assumptions and mistaken beliefs about people. They keep some people hidden from our view – we literally don’t see or hear them. Women have experienced and told their friends this for years: when in a meeting, a woman suggests something, and there is no response. Then a man suggests the same thing, and there is wide agreement around the table. The man was heard, the woman not. This is a simple example of what many minoritized and marginalized people experience because of the heuristics we have accepted.
Thus, the promise of our efforts to embrace the value of diversity, culture change, equity and inclusion. By examining and challenging these heuristics, we can move into allyship with those minoritized. By moving into accomplice status, we can embrace our shared humanity. This may mean that we defer to someone else with less experience and less seniority. If they have been denied equal opportunity, we must actively behave in a way that allows them to access them that opportunity. When we truly understand that we have benefitted from unequal privilege, we get out of the way to allow others a chance. We may need to talk about and reveal our own vulnerabilities, our own personhood. We likely also need to put our privileged self in the way of negative consequences, actively protecting others from unequal negative behavior that emerges from others who are acting out their own biased perceptions and attitudes.
If we are serious about culture change in our organizations and fields, we need to engage in a constant process of examination, reevaluation, and promotion of others corporately and individually. We can’t escape our heuristics – they do help us function. But we can impose new rules in our mental maps, policies, and processes. We need to actively disavow not only what we already understand marginalizes people, but also disavow what we learn from marginalized people has marginalized them. In other words, we need to keep learning and keep growing as allies and accomplices. We need to not only act to see and hear all people – regardless of what makes them “different” from ourselves, but we need to act in ways that promote all to be their authentic and valuable selves, leaders in our fields, organizations and communities.
(Note: please reexamine any notion that you can empower anyone. Let’s cut that out of our vocabularies. Everyone has their own power. They just need you to stop actively and passively harming them and become their ally and accomplice as they exercise their own wisdom and power).