‘Hiding behind unconscious bias’: a huge challenge for NEDs from Romeo Effs

I was brought up short while listening into a Changing the Chemistry Graduate Group Meeting last week. These meetings are regular member-only events, intended for existing non-executive directors and trustees, and they deal with topical issues, with the aim of supporting boards to ensure ever better governance. This month, the topic was ‘Increasing diversity on Boards: The BAME experience’, and the speaker was Board advisor Romeo Effs. While the conversation itself was entirely confidential, so I have no intention of revealing who else was there or who said what, what Romeo had to say was so important that it needs to be broadcast.

Romeo was there to talk to us about the importance of the Black and Asian perspective on boards and to share his Board experience and knowledge. The impetus afforded to ‘Black Lives Matter’ given by the horrific killing of George Floyd in the US, and subsequent illumination of decades – centuries – of discrimination, which we all knew about but had side-lined, means that we have one of the most important opportunities in our lifetime to ensure that change happens at Board level and throughout the organisations for which we as NEDs and Chairs are responsible.

I have long spoken about unconscious bias when I talk to my coaching clients or to boards, and I am clear when I speak that this is a bias which results from our assumptions that are influenced by the lenses through which we have been taught or encouraged to see the world. It can be very hard to spot this unconscious bias, but the first step is always to recognise that we have it. Some of our biases are healthy; many of them aren’t, because they position us as somehow superior to others, and they leave us closed to appreciating the power of diversity of thought which is more and more widely recognised as a central element in the success of Boards and their organisations.

What Romeo said that brought me up short was his exhortation to us all to ‘stop hiding behind unconscious bias; plain and simple, it is just bias’. He is completely right – it is so easy to say ‘yes, I am sure I have unconscious bias … I just don’t know what it is … so therefore this excuses me.’ On the contrary, the appreciation of unconscious bias does NOT excuse us; our recognition of unconscious bias is only the very first, baby step in making a change, of dragging our bias to the surface, examining it and then rejecting it, in order to contribute to making this world a fairer, more equal, more gloriously diverse and therefore much more creative and effective place.

So, what do we do? Well, start with Project Implicit, the Harvard Project which brings to the surface our unconscious biases, so that they are no longer unconscious, but we have awareness of them. And specifically, read ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge, which was recommended to me by an amazing black leader I admire, and which contains not only a devastating critique on the UK’s approach to race over the past 100 years, but also practical, strong direction on how to move forward. ‘Use your anger’, she says, and points out that ‘being anti-racist in your personal or professional life, where there’s very little praise to be found, is much more difficult, but ultimately more meaningful’. 

We all need to face up to our unconscious bias. And we need not to hide behind it. Board Chairs and NEDs should lead the way for their organisations.

Dr Helen Wright is an experienced NED, Board Chair and Advisor, as well as an Executive Coach who is deeply committed to global competence. Her most recent book, The Globally Competent School: a manual is available on Amazon.

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