The Intolerance of Otherness

It’s human to put people ‘box’ when we first meet them. We do it for cognitive ease, to make it easy to take in information. Original man had to categorize things into good or bad, food or poison, friend or foe. We still do it today despite better communication and the ease of collecting information on people; we categorize people.

When we meet you, we decide whether we like you or we not, if you are nice or not, if you know what you are talking about or not, if you have potential or not. We categorize one as rich or poor, black or white, beautiful or ugly, straight or corrupt, as ‘like me’ or not. In this way we create an ‘ism’.

According to the Miriam Webster dictionary, an ‘ism’ is defined as a distinctive doctrine, cause or theory. The term is used to denote an action, a state, a bias, a principle or a system. Examples are tribalism, nepotism, feminism, sexism, racism and so on.

What ‘ism’ defines your organization?

From our experience, there are two types of ‘isms’ in organizations: –

  1. Transparent isms – these come about when an organization make a conscious bias towards a situation e.g. feminism or positive tribalism. When a company makes a conscious bias through policy to ensure a fair representation of all. This is a transparent ism.
  2. Hidden/Unofficial isms – these are the unsaid isms that are exist within an organization. It is the underlying and overpowering ism that dictates how things are done. For example, when nepotism exists yet there is a laid down recruitment policy.

The hidden/unofficial ism is one of the ‘unseen evils’ that impact business performance. Unfortunately these ‘isms’ grow as more individuals converge around a common bias. This results in widespread low staff morale, missed business opportunities, high staff turnover, innovation and the locking out of talent. With such negative impact, it is important to address these biases openly and in a timely way.

The following four actions we believe form an approach to unearthing and eliminating hidden and unofficial isms.

Creating a culture of open and fearless communication enables those who experience or notice the bias to speak up. Creating opportunities for all employees to express themselves, and more importantly working with them through the plan to change the status, results in staff motivation through inclusion. An internal communication plan, an action plan and a dashboard for visibility must support this awareness.

Aligned Policy
Away from ‘cut and paste’ policies, organizations must develop policies that address their own context. A company with a big aging population from example may require a policy against bias towards younger people. The policy should be detailed and state examples of bias, leaving nothing to imagination or interpretation. It is important not to over compensate the current hidden ism with radical measures as this may have the reverse effect.

The consequences of not following the policy on the company and the individual must be clearly stated. Often, the fact that the ism has been tolerated for so long, policies may be treated as ‘just another policy’ from senior management. And if this happens, the negative effects of the ism will continue to affect the company and the people. For example, if a company policy states that people must be nice to one another, there will be no more authenticity and it will not reveal the underlying issue.

Adopt new ways
Ultimately, the intolerance of otherness is a culture issue. An ism arises and thrives because there are ways of doing things that support.  It is important to interrogate the environment for any structural, system or process elements that support the bias and to re-design them. For example, if a company finds that tribalism exists, a company could actively change their recruitment practices.

In conclusion, human beings are prone to bias. However, where groups are required to work together, the unearthing and elimination of bias is important for individuals and teams to thrive.

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