Confronting Bias at Work

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When you see a wrong taking place, what do you do? Suppose, for example, that an individual uses a disability parking spot because it is closer to the store, not due to need. Do you confront the individual or continue with your day?

Or, suppose you are at work and hear a colleague say that women don’t have what it takes to be leaders, or you hear a comment that perpetuates racial stereotypes. Do you speak up? If so, what are the outcomes of doing so?

These are some of the possibilities Aneeta Rattan, of London Business School, and Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, examined in their recent study. They explored people’s attitudes toward the workplace after confronting biased language, and whether the outlook was dependent on the person’s mindset.

Mindsets represent general beliefs that people have—the way they see others and the world. If you have a growth mindset, you believe that people can change and improve. If you have a fixed mindset, you hold that people are unlikely to change, or, as the saying goes, that a tiger does not change his stripes.

They found that people who had a growth mindset and who confronted the biased language had the most positive attitudes. They reported a sense of belonging in the workplace and felt that their colleagues would change. On the other hand, those with a fixed mindset and those who remained silent reported comparatively negative evaluations of their colleagues and their workplace as a whole. Thus, holding a growth mindset was only beneficial when the person confronted the bias language.

Speaking up can be difficult. Doing so sometimes comes with professional consequences. That noted, Rattan and Dweck’s research suggests that there are real benefits in speaking up and confronting biased language, especially when you hold the belief that people can change and improve.