Demolishing unconscious bias in the construction industry

Sharing her unique and invaluable insight into the demolition theme of the February print edition of Inside Construction, Dr Gretchen Gagel delves into the metaphorical demolition of unconscious bias in the construction industry.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel.

When I considered the demolition theme of this edition of Inside Construction, I was prompted to think about not just the physical things we demolish, but the less physical things that we can metaphorically demolish. In previous editions I’ve discussed some of the great things about our industry. We are an industry of humble people that serve society in a way that is rarely celebrated to the extent we deserve. We provide the schools that educate our children, the electricity and gas that guide our way in the world. We solve problems like how to make buildings withstand earthquakes and how to move people from one place to another in a fast and efficient way.

I’ve also discussed some of the not-so-great things about our industry. I would argue that there are elements of our culture that we should demolish, such as unconscious bias.

Understanding unconscious bias

One of the extraordinary benefits of dividing my time between the United States and Australia, and in consulting to clients around the world, is that I’m exposed to diverse perspectives and ideas. I was recently blown away by a presentation by a third-generation principal contractor in the United States. We sit on the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Diversity and Inclusion Committee together and Sam was asked to share the story of how their team’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts propelled their company from $200 million to $500 million in annual revenue in three years.

Sam shared that they had tried to work on DE&I in the past with little success. The turning point for him was attending a course by White Men as Full Diversity Partners (WMFDP). This training opened Sam’s eyes to the fact that white men don’t fully understand that they live in and create a unique culture because they exist in that culture – it is transparent to them. This is not an attack on white men. It is an acknowledgement that those of us who are not white men might experience the world in a different way and that unconscious bias can shape how we interact with people that are different from us.

The philosophy of WMFDP co-founder Bill Proudman is documented in the book Four Days to Change: 12 Radical Habits to Overcome Bias and Thrive in a Diverse World by WMFDP co-founder Dr. Michael Welp. It shares the learnings of the nearly three-decade journey of Michael and Bill in leading their highly successful programs to help not only enlighten us to the unconscious bias that exists in the world, but to help us understand how to overcome that bias and engage in a way that achieves inclusion. In Sam’s case, that inclusive thinking led to breakthrough business results.

Let me share one example of unconscious bias that I’ve experienced. In 2013, two men, founding partners of a strategy firm in the engineering/construction/energy/mining industries, hired me as the first President of their firm. I had worked with both of them at a prior strategy/investment banking firm and both were aware of my capabilities. Soon after I joined, people started asking me this question – “Are you a woman-owned business?”. In the United States women-owned business certification can at times provide for preferential selection as a supplier. My response – “No”. In many instances, the next question was, “Then why did Mark and Clark hire you as President?”. Really.

Another common example of unconscious bias shared in the book is the story of a boy and his father involved in a car accident. The father passes away immediately at the scene, while the boy is transported to the hospital’s emergency room and taken instantly into surgery. Before operating, the surgeon stops and says, “I won’t operate on this boy – he is my son.” Did you solve the riddle?

Everyone has unconscious bias. I have it too. Breaking down unconscious bias in the construction industry will lead to higher levels of inclusivity and better performance.

Tearing down unconscious bias

So how do we go about bulldozing unconscious bias in the construction industry? Here are my suggestions as a starting point:

  • Learn: Learn about what unconscious bias is and how it impacts all people. The book I’ve mentioned in this piece is a great starting point but there are many books and courses out there. The key is to have an open mind that allows you to fully understand the different experiences of yourself and others in the world.
  • Set a goal: Whether it’s a personal goal to be more inclusive or an organisational goal, doing something concrete with what you’ve learned is important. This is not about the numbers game of diversity; it is about inclusion and how people feel about their experience within your team or organisation. Setting an individual goal to be more present to how you ‘show up’ to others is a great starting point.
  • Be open to feedback: On the day I wrote this editorial I read a wonderful article in Harvard Business Review by Sabina Nawaz entitled To Build New Habits, Get Comfortable Failing. I was reminded of my time learning to play golf decades ago. You’re not perfect at anything when you start. Asking great questions will help you understand how your team is feeling about inclusion.
  • Create psychological safety: I am a huge fan of Amy Edmonson, Harvard, author of The Fearless Organization and psychological safety research expert. People need to feel safe in sharing their experiences and confident that leaders will react in a positive way and work to create a more inclusive culture. Either that, or they will leave.

I speak of these things because I love our industry as it is today, and value the fact that we can always do better. Regardless of your gender, ethnicity or personal characteristics, being aware of and addressing unconscious bias will only make you, your teams, your organisations and the wider construction industry stronger.

Dr. Gretchen Gagel is Chair of Brinkman Construction (US), a member of the National Academy of Construction (US), a member of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (AUS), and an affiliate professor at the Australian National University and the University of Denver. As President/Managing Director of Greatness Consulting Pty Ltd she continues to advise organisations within the construction industry on optimising capital program delivery and developing talent. You can hear more from Gretchen on her Spotify podcast, “Greatness”.

This feature first appeared in Inside Construction.

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