Sway by Dr Agarwal – #ICBookClub review

CIPR Inside committee members, Martin Flegg, Chaya Mistry and Noel Armstrong, reflect on the main talking points within the book and the resulting discussion in August’s IC book club.

‘Bias’ – such a small word, but one which has profound implications for all of us. 

This extraordinary book reveals the huge range of ways in which bias can be manifest beyond the obvious forms of gender and race bias. Confirmation bias, conformity bias, affinity bias, beauty bias, accent bias, age bias, compound biases. The list goes on, but all of these biases are founded in the short cuts, which our brains use to reduce the cognitive effort of interpretation and decision making in a world where we are drowning in information. 

These short cuts are both evolved and learned, often from a very early age, and are happening every second deep within our subconscious minds, hence the term unconscious bias. 

The uncomfortable truth revealed by this book is that we are all biased. Our thoughts, attitudes, decision making, actions and behaviours are all heavily influenced by our biases, which have profound implications for fairness and the equality of treatment of everyone in our society. In some ways, this is at the core of what we do as internal communicators and our ethical purpose, to balance the needs of employees with the demands of leadership to create fair and inclusive workplaces. To be fair to everyone.  

How compromised by our own biases are we as internal communicators? How often do we decide about the communication needs of audiences based on our instincts, rather than on insights and measurement? It is clear from this book that those instincts will be biased, which will mean the communications we create will be biased too. How can we counteract this to fulfil our ethical role?

We are often told that great communications are founded in great insight, but this isn’t a foolproof way to strip out bias from communication and decision making inside organisations either. Based on research and observations, the book reveals what many will have long suspected - that men speak and interrupt more than women in day to day interactions. 

This has implications for employee voice in organisations. If the insights gathered are skewed towards the opinions of one group, the decision making and communications based on that insight will likely be biased and perhaps create a working environment which is more favourable for that group. To counteract this effect, we need to be mindful of the methods we use to collect and interpret employee voice to strip out as much of the bias as we can. 

Even more caution should be used when we move deeper into this digital age of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI). We will only polarise our thinking further if computers choose the relevance of ‘group think’ messages and content and dismiss that which is an outlier or minority voice. Organisations may face the risk of damaging diversity and inclusion efforts, and the progress of nurturing the human capacity for empathy quickly dissolves if we do not manage AI with this level of human impact in mind. 

To tackle the impact of bias on organisations, we naturally look first at senior leadership. The lack of diversity in our boardrooms is a reminder that this is not an easy task. But if organisations need innovation and creativity to compete in the market, they must have diversity of thought and safe spaces to challenge the status quo. Every time a decision is made we must look around the room at the people who have a say, does the boardroom, c-suite, leadership team represent the diversity of the organisation? 

As communicators, we can write the narratives about inclusion, but the proof will be in the corporate culture and commitments from leadership at all levels. Communication professionals can support leaders to speak about diversity and address bias. However, actions speak louder than words. When we notice those gaps in what a leader says and what they do, it is our duty to hold up the mirror and coach our leaders to pay attention and support them to make changes. This is part of our jobs to uphold the integrity and trust of the leaders we work for.

The book highlights the problem with echo chambers – an issue often highlighted by communicators in online chats, blogs and forums. The author quotes Bill Gates, who said technology like social media ‘lets you go off with like-minded people so you’re not mixing and sharing and understanding other points of view…’ 

IC book club participants agreed that echo chambers were prevalent in internal communications. One participant asserted that we could reduce their impact by providing platforms for diverse views, storytelling and creating safe spaces for people to speak up. Another believed that our profession holds diverse views and highlighted the healthy and challenging debates we are having. There seems to be agreement that we need to look outside our echo chambers, and the profession needs to work harder to hire diverse talent – something highlighted in several industry reports.

The final question in the discussion asked internal communicators what they could learn from the book. Participants seemed to agree that the book helped to reveal blindspots and make them aware of unconscious bias they had not considered previously. It provided several useful lessons for internal communicators to learn and helped them consider the less obvious minority groups. One internal communicator summarised her learnings, saying, ‘I will be proactive in finding successful role models for less prevalent groups and put the spotlight on them and their stores to encourage people in their ingroup.’

The book is published by Bloomsbury Sigma. You can follow the author on Twitter @DrPragyaAgarwal. Dr Agarwal’s website carries details of her next book release in October 2020 - Wish we knew what to say: talking with children about race.