The Word Collection Series #2

[June 27, 2020] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas




SERIES INTRO: Inspired by a children’s book written by best-selling author Peter H. Reynolds titled The Word Collector (2018), we decided to collect some of our favorite words like the book’s main character, Jerome. Jerome is a little boy who is enthralled with the magic of words all around him. He eagerly collects words he hears, sees, and reads – powerful words, simple words, sad words, and dreamy words.


This is the second in our Word Collection Series where we thoughtfully select and write about words, apply them to the world of leaders, and then empty them into the wind for others to collect and share. Why? Because words matter. They are a powerful force that can be used constructively, or destructively. Words have energy and power. They can help bring healing, laughter, hurt, and harm. They can bring hope!


So, here are a few of our interesting words and phrases some are new, some have new meanings, some are worth reflecting on, and some are just marvelous to say.

Travel John and Travel Jane. Are you traveling with the family this summer? Are you trying to avoid the use of public restrooms? This is often a nonversation starter on Zoom these days! Well here’s the latest in “PPE” a new product that is a paper bag with a unisex plastic funnel, filled with crystals that absorb liquid and turns to gel. All you have to do is urinate through the funnel as needed and throw the gelatinous bag away when full (Wilson, 2020). Warning, bacteria is present at low levels in the urine of healthy people. (This takes potty talk to a new level!) So yes, we’re a bit grossed out, but probably not as much as the waste management workers. Implications for leaders? – hopefully none.

Implicit Bias. A bias is a preconceived evaluation of someone or something. It’s an oversimplified judgment based on a subset of information. Implicit bias is the positive and negative attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions without our knowing it. Think back – how often have you suffered from a preconceived bias? Sadly, it happens too often. These biases are formed over the course of a lifetime through learned associations and conditioning. They are activated involuntarily and without our awareness. In fact, our implicit biases are not accessible through introspection (so much for mindfulness exercises), and are often contrary to our conscious beliefs and perceived identity.


The problem with implicit bias is that we see and respond to the world through these biased lenses, treating a particular person or group differently because of it. There’s plenty of research to support this in the workplace. For example, a recent study showed how identical resumes were treated differently depending on the name at the top of the document. There were significantly fewer call backs (a demonstrated negative bias) to candidates related to gender (female), age (older) and race (black) (Berghoef, 2019).


While this is opaque work, there are ways to develop some understanding of our personal implicit biases. First – check in with a trusted person who has your best interests at heart, someone who is different from you (race, gender, sexual orientation) and who will share their observations of your behavior honestly. Be brave – this can be a tough message, but in the end you will benefit. (Don’t roll your eyes – just take a leap of faith and trust us here!) If you have no such trusted person in your sphere, that might be a clue as well.


Another way to better understand our implicit biases is through a computerized test that times our responses to matching words and concepts. Our minds make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds (unconscious associations such as “salt and pepper” or “ebony and ivory”) than they do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us (such as “female and scientist” or “female and firefighter”). Through a computerized pairing test called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), words flash on a screen for the participant to categorize in one of two columns. Your responses are measured down to the millisecond and are used to assign a score. The longer your response takes, the weaker the association between the two words or pictures (Gladwell, 2005). Quite frankly, these tests may make you quite uncomfortable, particularly the tests around race and gender, as you begin to see what your unconscious attitudes are as compared to your stated conscious values. Check it out! This is something where you can learn and have fun at the same time – that doesn’t happen too often in the realm of testing! These computerized tests are publicly available at www.implicit.harvard.edu.


In the documentary film by Directors/Producers Sattuck and Cheney and Producer Pottle (2020), “Picture a Scientist” is the story behind the groundbreaking 1999 MIT report on gender and racial bias that demonstrates the significant impact of implicit bias. Three extraordinary female Scientists (two white and one black) are interviewed about their experiences in the academic science world. They talk about their difficult journey with the tip-of-the-iceberg behaviors (the overt acts that are most visible), such as explicit harassment, coercion, and assault. But no less impactful are the less visible dynamics – the microaggressions below the surface. Contending with these harmful behaviors required much of their time and energy (a morale buster!). One of the scientists described the gender and racial bias dynamics as the “time suck” – having to figure out how to best deal with and respond to the situations in ways that did not get in the way of their abilities to be scientists. These dynamics included subtle exclusions from projects or events, being left off emails, discrete obscene gestures, being ignored in meetings, being treated like a technician or custodian, not getting credit for earned work, having their competence questioned, being underestimated, and the recipient of derogatory comments, to name a few. By the way – these are not behaviors of a healthy leader! Over and over, these bright scientists communicated their desire to just be treated equitably as scientists in their own right.


When the women scientists (or STEMinists) determined it was time to make the invisible institutional discrimination visible, they found that the other members of the system could not see the bias. So, they began the painstaking process of collecting data to tell their story, starting with data that demonstrated the significant difference in the office and lab sizes of female scientists (much smaller) as compared to male. This is where data is your friend. It was through this systematic process that they eventually were able to expose many of the system’s implicit biases. Only then, could the social and structural enablers of the bias be identified and replacement strategies developed.


Systematic review of critical processes is necessary to help us unearth and see the implicit bias in our organizations. We cannot trust our own sense of rightness and equity. We need more objective ways to see the evidence – through the analysis of human resource data such as the professional pipeline demographics, recruitment, retention, resource distribution, and pay comparisons across the diverse membership. When we truly believe that we each carry implicit biases, we can begin to find ways to see and hear the stories around us. Strategies such as surveys, interviews, policy reviews, and dialogue with those who are potentially disadvantaged can begin to open the equity door. This is living, leading, and learning from a healthier perspective.

Sludge and Sludge Audits. Sludge is a heavy, deep deposit of mud or slush that bogs us down, saps our strength, creates a burden. Anyone feeling this right now? Sludge is ubiquitous, found in more than our streets and neighborhoods. The U.S. government, for example, imposed an annual information-gathering burden of 9.78 billion hours on the American people in a 2015 study through its rules, regulations, and policies. The first-prize winner of the sludge burden was and is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) followed by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (Sustein, 2019a).


The workplace, too, can be loaded with sludge. Organizational sludge is the accumulation of obstacles and friction that employees face when they are trying to get the work done and that customers endure to receive the product or services they are seeking. It is the time, trouble, and stress tied to the involved tasks, such as navigating complex systems. Sometimes the sludge is the by-product of poorly designed processes, and sometimes it is intentional – for many, it creates job security. It is always important to understand the rationale for the sludge, as well as the cost of the burden and ask if it justifies the benefits.

Some justifications for sludge include attempts for program or product integrity (e.g., making sure you are who you say you are and that you qualify for the indicated program), privacy protection, and data collection for both short- and long-term benefits (often used for research and product improvements). We often get carried away with our justifications, however, and create situations where our employees and customers become disadvantaged and even harmed. Another morale buster!


It’s important to understand and reduce the sludge effect in our saturated work environments. Can we get an “Amen”? One strategy is to conduct sludge audits. “Transparency about sludge would be the first step toward reducing it” (Sustein, 2019a, p 1881). Department by department, conduct reviews to better understand the cost-benefit justification. Utilizing real data about costs and gains is the first step toward reducing the burden and potentially decreasing the costs of business.

Nudge. A nudge is to gently prod someone in order to draw their attention to something. It’s not a forceful push or a shove. A nudge simply steers a person in a particular direction, should they choose to go there. A nudge preserves our freedom of choice and helps us make behaviorally-informed choices.


Our daily lives are full of nudges. Some examples include phone applications that tell us when to stand up, take a deep breath, and/or record our food intake. A GPS is a great example of a nudge – giving us direction but not locking us into one route (if you are geographically challenged – take the nudge!). Other examples include alarm clocks, automatic payment systems, road signs, disclosure of health-related information, reminders, etc. Each of these is meant to inform, but not coerce.


A nudge can be one antidote to sludge. (Sounds like a Dr. Seuss book.) As our organizations grow increasingly complex, it is important to find ways to make it easier for employees to do the right things. And research demonstrates that interventions that change behavior are not necessarily proportionate to the effort or money spent. In fact, very small changes can have huge effects, and very large or costly changes may have minimal. Yet, we often think that if we spend more, we’ll get better results. Not true.


Here are a few nudges to consider building into the work environment – simplify complex forms, send reminders with links, provide decision-support software tools, elicit implementation intentions (“are you planning on attending the meeting?”), use social norms (“98% of your colleagues are coming to this educational session”), change opt-in choices to opt-out to make the right choice the easy choice (Sustein, 2019b).

Onomatopoeia. An onomatopoeia is a word that that sounds like whatever it is describing. It is intended to sound like, or imitate, the action or sound associated with it. Examples of onomatopoeia include coocoo, honk, bang, howl, revved, sizzle, swish, and bong.


Implications for leaders – try throwing out a cluster of rapid-fire onomatopoeias to capture the wandering attention of your people. It might work. It will create a buzzzzz. Too much seriousness in these crazy days, so create a little fun – at a minimum it will wake everyone up!

Titter Time: from the universe

There's a saying that goes, “The universe gives you a whisper, then a nudge, then a push and then an anvil on your head.

-- Sara Genn

References


Berghoef, K. (2020, February 11). Implicit Bias: What It Means and How It Affects Behavior. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-implicit-bias-4165634

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little Brown and Company.

Shattuck, S. Cheney, I. & Pottle, M. (2020). Picture a Scientist. United States: Tribeca Film Festival. Retrieved from https://www.pictureascientist.com/

Sunstein, C. (2019a). Sludge and Ordeals. (Special Issue on Administrative Law and Deregulation). Duke Law Journal, 68(8), 1843–1883.


Sunstein, C. (2019b). Nudging: A Very Short Guide. Business Economics, 54(127), 127-129.

Wilson, M. (2020, June 22). Meet the summer’s sleeper hit product: A bag you pee into. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90518559/meet-the-summers-sleeper-hit-product-a-bag-you-pee-into

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