Ms Smita Tharoor

Being conscious of the unconscious bias

In this edition of the Shesight Magazine, we bring to you the corporate chanakya, Ms. Smita Tharoor. She is a distinguished thought leader and a motivational speaker in leadership development and organisational change. Her clients include multiple fortune 500 companies across the globe.She is also the CEO of Tharoor Associates and the co-founder of Culturelytics. Through Tharoor Associates, she has worked with pioneers in the industry such as Allianz Cornhill, Nasscom and National Health services (NHS) of the United Kingdom in order to help them ‘lead’ better. As co-founder of Culturelytics, she leads a company that uniquely aims at improving the work cultures of organisations with the help of artificial intelligence. Her expertise lies in bringing insight and awareness into the current culture of an organisation. By doing so, she helps re-engineer existing organisational blueprints and creates a high performance, value based culture within the organisation. When she is not advising her corporate clientele, she is busy imparting her knowledge to students across the globe. And so she has given lectures to students across top-tier tier universities such as the London School of Economics (LSE), the University of Arts, London (UAL) and the Jindal Global University, India. She is also a trained NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Practitioner, Coach, Mentor and Mindfulness Practitioner.

One of the key concepts her work touches upon is the effect of conditional bias on decision making. The term she uses for this is ‘Unconscious bias’ – the bias can be mental, cultural or behavioural.The bias could be a result of past experiences (conditioning) which has a direct impact on the current outcomes. She observes that the bias is often unconscious within individuals which results in them making choices on auto-pilot mode without awareness. Ms.Tharoor, anchors a podcast where she interviews people around the world to share their stories of unconscious bias. She gently prods the interviewee to look into their own unconscious bias,and it is really motivating to hear those stories and how they overcame the biases for their advantage . Search for her name . and the “stories of unconscious bias” on whatever platform the podcast is heard . As a solution to overcome unconscious bias ,she has developed tool sets and methodologies whereby through self-evaluation and reasoning the leaders of a company become empowered to take sustainable decisions. And so, she enables the leadership of an organisation to become self-aware of their inherent biases and make decisions that are inclusive, sustainable and data driven.

A glimpse into Ms. Tharoor’s upbringing and one can understand where her insights stem from. As she herself puts it, Ms. Tharoor had an accepting, liberal, non-judgemental and secular upbringing. An outcome of this upbringing that the world cherishes today is her brother – the Honorable MP, Mr. Shashi Tharoor. They Ms.Smita and Mr.Shashi Tharoor along with their sister Ms. Shobha showcase the essence of the Tharoor family, whose roots lie in the district of Palghat, Kerala.

Ms. Tharoor took her baby steps into limelight by becoming the first baby model for the iconic Amul baby milk powder. Later on, as a young girl she had gone on to bag the 1st runner-up for the prestigious Miss India beauty competition in 1979.

  1. What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as a preference or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another. Sometimes this could be considered unfair. We get these biases instinctively due to our personal stories and life experiences that define us in ways we have not realised.

2. Are there any tools and techniques to catch the mind when it starts to slip into its unconscious ways?

The first thing that you have to do is to acknowledge that you have unconscious biases. So, when you instinctively jump to a conclusion, you need to stop, reflect for a while, and recognise that your initial opinion may not be the right one. That’s easier said than done but it’s the first step in the right direction.

3. Can you please explain what is unconscious bias in the context of organisational behaviour within international organisations which has an amalgam of different nationalities from varied cultures?

In this scenario, what we often do is stereotype nationalities and that is our unconscious bias. So, for example, we may make a stereotypical expectation that Japanese people behave in a certain way and Indian people work in a certain way. In the office we unconsciously expect each nationality to behave in stereotypical ways. A lot of research has been done on this topic. It comes down to culture. Way back in the 70’s it was suggested that there are two types of culture – high context (HC) and low context (LC).

Communicating between these two will naturally have their issues as the values of each culture are quite different.

HC is influenced by the closeness of human relationships; well-structured social hierarchy and strong behavioural norms while LC meanings are explicitly stated through language. People usually expect explanations when something is not clear. It’s direct, linear, precise, and based on true intentions. No marks for guessing whether India is HC or LC.

The stereotypical values of Western Europeans and the US are democracy, self-determination, equality work ethic, human rights, and their communication style reflects this as they are generally extrovert, forceful, lively, interrupts, talkative, and most importantly place truth before diplomacy.

India, on the other hand, values hierarchies, is fatalistic, male-dominated, and has an unequal work ethic.

The style of communication is usually introverted, modest, quiet, doesn’t interrupt, uses silence, and places diplomacy before truth. Both are generalisations, naturally, and there will always be a talkative, forceful Indian sitting with the quiet, modest American alongside a Finn whose values match with the American but communicates more like an Indian.

So, the point is when you are working you are expected to have a more cohesive and inclusive organisational culture. What you need to do is to try and see each individual for themselves rather than see them because of their nationality. In other words, you do not define people by their difference. You see them for bringing in the work, the skills, and ability they have when they join.

4. Can you please define the value addition and or the force multiplier effect that you can bring into organisations explicitly from your past experiences with the coaching and counselling of leadership of concerned organisations?

A Force Multiplier mindset means that as individuals we show up every hour of every day with the belief and resolve that our performance is the defining factor in the success of a team. This cannot be achieved if the leader does not believe that themselves and does not encourage a strong sense of identity and self-belief amongst all employees.

So, when you are talking about coaching, I think it is important that the leaders of the organisations have conversations around unconscious bias with all their employees, which will create a trickle-down effect.

If there are 200 employees and the CEO talks to 10 people and those 10 will talk to 10 and so on, each group will understand what it means in terms of becoming part of an inclusive organisation.

Very often when you go into organisations and you talk about unconscious bias it is bracketed as diversity and inclusion. I am not talking about diversity and inclusion. I am talking about me and how I can manage my situation, my own unconscious biases for myself. When you begin to do that for yourself, only then can it make a difference in how you self-identify and if you can have a force multiplier mindset in your company.

5. Emotional Intelligence is a commonly used phrase that has been made famous by Daniel Goleman et al. other than corporates, what is the specific strategy that you would recommend to families for helping children to have a well-rounded personality and be empathic?

Daniel Goleman says there are four domains of emotional intelligence. The fourth one is empathy. There are three other domains that you have to understand and practice before you become emotionally intelligent and show empathy to other people. Those three things are directly connected to our unconscious bias.

They are self-awareness, self-management, and self-motivation; in other words, they are intra-personal skills that we have to learn. By intra-personal I mean me, myself, and I . When we are talking of Daniel Goleman specifically, you can’t get to the fourth without the first three.

So, once you learn to become more self-aware and you reflect and think about your stories and your unconscious biases, only then can you become better in your head and manage yourself. If you believe in yourself, if you have confidence in your skill and if you are comfortable in your own identity, only then can you motivate yourself to achieve and will be able to look at another human being and show empathy towards them. So, for children, the first step is to make them more self-aware. Help them question themselves, help them to have their voice, help them to be more comfortable in their skin, help them to be more comfortable in their identity, and only then can they evolve to a more well-rounded personality.

6. Is empathy inherited (genetics), why are some cultures more emphatically inclined why others are not so. This could be my bias, but I am basing this question based on my perception and understanding of history?

That is your bias because you are using the word empathy in that context. There is a very interesting book written by Lisa Feldman Barrett called “How emotions are made”. In that she says, some countries don’t have the word that means “fear” or “anger” in their language.

Those of us speaking in English to each other, we put emotion into words. So, when you are saying certain cultures don’t show empathy, instead of putting emotion into it you have to acknowledge that certain cultures behave differently in certain situations. This is connected to my earlier point of LC and HC types of culture.

7. Again, what is the role of genetics and conditioning in leadership development? Is not the value system (ethics, fairness, honesty, kindness, empathy) the foundation of the personality that has a direct impact on being a good leader? How do leaders evolve in a political culture which is corrupt and not transparent? What is your take on this?

Daniel Kahneman a psychologist, Nobel prize winner has written a book called “Thinking Fast and Slow”. One of the aspects of genetics is how our brain is wired. You probably know the phrase that people see the world half empty or half full; we see the world positively or negatively.

He says we are genuinely born half empty or half full. Some people see the word more negatively and some see the world positively. Then your life experiences, which is called our conditioning, our parenting, how we are brought up, the value system of our own family and our own experiences, all these will have an impact on what kind of leader you are. .

Working in a corrupt political environment is harder because often people cannot succeed unless they fall into the corrupt way of working.

They may not want to, as it is against their value system. That makes it much more challenging as a leader. But on the other hand, if you are aware that you are a composite of many things including how your brain is wired alongside your narrative, you are better able to challenge your unconscious biases, accept that some things are out of your control, and do the best you can to work in a mismatched value-based organisation.

8. Can you please share your experiences on working with different leaders and their impact on your persona?

I work for myself as I have my own company and therefore when I am working with different leaders, they don’t influence my personality as they are not my boss. If they were my boss that might affect how I behave. My job is to help support the leader in improving organisational behaviour. There is one company that I worked with who wanted me to work with them because they wanted to be a more inclusive organisation. The CEO was extremely excited about the kind of work that I am doing and was very supportive. Therefore, as a result, over the period of a year or two, they began to see the cultural and behavioural change in the company. On the other hand, I have worked with leaders who are dictatorial in their approach and not self-aware enough to acknowledge that they have their own unconscious biases. The employees are willing to understand and recognise they have to change but if the leader doesn’t understand that, then the company is not going to change. So, it has to be a top-down approach, the leader has to accept and influence.

9. Can you speak a little bit about your childhood and the influence of your parents & siblings on your outlook on life as an adult?

One of the reasons that I work with unconscious bias is because I have reflected on my childhood, parents, my siblings, and my outlook on life. I realise that I am very lucky. I was born in Bombay, grew up in Calcutta and I am the third of the three children. I grew up in . the ’70s in Calcutta. We grew up in an inclusive non-judgmental accepting home. Many families all over India in those days (and today) are patriarchal. The first-born son would have got far more attention than the girls. That did not happen to me. If anything, if you ask my brother, he would say his sisters were more favoured than him, so we never felt in any way lesser.

About religion, I had friends of all religions, and Calcutta was a melting pot of religions. My parents were not concerned about my friend’s religion or caste. For me, caste came from history books. My surname does not say what caste I am. My father changed his name and took his ancestral house name which is Tharoor. It was during the freedom struggle and he did not want to be recognised for his caste.

The fourth was sexuality. We were taught to accept everyone regardless of their sexual identity. A gentleman was living in our building who was Gay and at no point did we feel that was wrong or unusual.

In retrospect, I was lucky to grow up under the influence of my parents and siblings. It was a genuine liberal and non-judgmental environment. I grew up in a city, but I also have an ancestral home in Kerala. Every summer holiday, every single year we went back to the village. In hindsight that had an enormous impact on my outlook on life. My experiences of urban and rural life in India has shaped me. I have never lived in Kerala except for the summer holidays yet I have a strong sense of identity of being a Malayalee.

10. What do you think is unique about Indian culture and what unique value addition do you feel that it can provide to the amalgam of world cultures based on your experiences.

India is like Europe; Europe is a continent. How can you expect somebody from Sweden to be the same as the people from Greece?

In Europe the language is different, the food is different, the culture and the value systems are different. India is like that, yet it is one country rather than a continent. Many people assume that we are the same while we are not. As with most countries, India has its own unique and subtle manner in which business is conducted. Success can depend on an appreciation and understanding of the cultural aspects and idiosyncrasies of the people.

What is unique about India is that each state has something wonderful and unique about it that we bring to the table. The food is different, culture is different, the value system is different, yet we may not acknowledge that.

So being part of the Indian culture is fantastic. I am genuinely an all-round Indian as I was born in Bombay in the West, grew up in Calcutta in the East, went to University in Rajasthan, and lived in Delhi in the North and went to our ancestral home in Kerala in the South.

Each of the states that I lived had wonderful things to offer me. So, I can confidently go into any kind of international organisation and talk about world culture based on those early experiences.

On behalf of the Shesight we extend our sincere thanks and gratitiude for her time and effort. We wish her the very best on both the personal as well as the professional front for 2020 and beyond.



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