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  • Pooja Sachdev

Understanding the "Spectrum of Speaking up"​ (S.O.S.)



You've done Unconscious Bias training – now what?



Most of us are now familiar with what bias is – conscious and unconscious[1] (and apparently, we seem to be rejecting the need for any more training on the subject[2]), so, let me ask this: what do you do when you see bias at play around you?


  • What do you do when you hear someone making a sexist or homophobic joke or a racist comment (clue: It often begins with “I don’t mean to be racist but...”)?


  • What do you do when you see a colleague making a decision or judgment about a person they are interviewing or assessing, based on stereotypical assumptions?

Sadly, most people do nothing.

According to a 2019 study by Deloitte, over 90% of professionals consider themselves to be an ally in the workplace but only 29% say they speak up in the moment when they perceive bias[3].


If we are all familiar with unconscious bias, and most of us have had some training on it, then why do most of us do nothing when we see bias in action?


Here is what I think.


Firstly: Training, by definition, focuses on individuals and doesn’t usually address organisational and cultural factors. For any training to deliver positive change – whether it is about unconscious bias or something else – it has to be accompanied by, and delivered within the context of, wider, systemic changes (e.g. to process, policy, leadership, communication and ways of working[4]) that supports the individual behaviour change. Unfortunately, too often, this is not the case. Cultural factors get ignored and Unconscious bias (UB) training cannot and does not work in isolation.


Secondly: Typical ‘tick-box’ UB training (usually e-learning) falls short because it stops at what I call ‘level 1’, awareness. It teaches us what bias is, and raises our understanding of the concept, but it doesn’t help us answer the next logical question, which is what we should do about it. We know that awareness isn’t enough for behaviour change[5], and in fact, awareness alone leaves us frustrated. It doesn’t equip us with the skills needed to take action, to prevent bias from influencing decisions at work. This kind of ‘level 1’ UB training doesn’t teach us how to speak up in moments when we encounter bias in action.


So let’s talk about speaking up – which is the (often missing but essential) ‘behavioural’ component of good bias training.


When you say “speak up”, most people imagine standing up in a large meeting room or making a grand and public statement, often an accusation against someone else.

That idea can feel scary, so it often deters us from action. We don’t want to rock the boat or engage in a public confrontation, and often (though we might not like to admit it), we don’t want to put ourselves at risk of social exclusion or ridicule. So we stay silent and let it slide, and we become complicit.


Person sat in dark room looking out of window
Photo by Alex McCarthy on Unsplash

But the truth is that speaking up about bias doesn’t need to always look like a big, public naming and shaming. Of course, there are some situations that call for immediate and public action, but for most of the subtle situations we might encounter at work, there are a variety of subtler ways in which we can choose to respond, that can also be effective.


For example, we might choose to say something to the person later and privately, rather than in the moment (although there are pros and cons – so you also need to consider the impact on others in the room of doing nothing in the moment – what message does that send, particularly if you are a leader or in a position of authority?).


Another idea is that rather than making a grand accusation, we can choose a “micro-intervention”, as Dr. Sue suggests in this NY Times article[6] such as asking for clarification (e.g. What did you mean when you said...?), sharing your own process (e.g. I used to think/say that but then I learnt...) and separating intent from impact (e.g. I know you didn’t mean to offend... but...).


The point is that rather than shutting down or shouting at, we can try and find an approach that does not put the other (presumably well-intentioned) person on the defensive, but rather, engages them in a respectful, productive, two-way conversation.


Many people now refer to this as “calling in” rather than “calling out”.



Group of 4 people sitting and talking
Photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash

Calling someone OUT is often in public (e.g. on social media) and it is accusatory, driving the person to feel guilt and shame.


Calling IN is often in private (though it can also be in the presence of others), the difference being that it is done with patience, kindness and empathy, with a view to support, coach and bring “in” rather than shut out.[7] When you choose to call in rather than call out, you assume that the other person is well-meaning and open to learning, and that we can all make mistakes and grow.


One criticism of this approach is that when you’re on the receiving end of a prejudiced statement or joke, you don’t always have the capacity to engage in deep dialogue about it (nor should you always be expected to coach others). If that is the case, a middle option can be “calling on”, as this podcast with Prof. Loretta Ross explains.[8].


The point is: there are many options for how we can choose to respond[9].


In some of our workshops at Rewire, we draw on the “4 Ds” of Active bystander (or Upstander) training[10] and adapt them for typical workplace situations:


  1. Direct action

  2. Delayed action

  3. Delegation to someone who can take action or

  4. Distraction e.g. change the topic of conversation (a bare minimum: this stops escalation in the moment and avoids collusion)


What you choose to do will depend on who you are (your personality, your role in the organisation), what the situation is, your relationship with the person, the severity of the action, etc. If you are in a managerial or leadership role, for example, you may have a greater responsibility to proactively demonstrate and role model inclusive language and behaviour to set an example for others (though I would argue that it is incumbent on all of us to demonstrate the behaviours we wish to see in others).


In summary, there is no single best way to speak up – it depends on the context and the person. In the visual below, I offer a “Spectrum Of Speak up” – an “S.O.S.”, if you will!



The skill we then need to develop is how to exercise judgement in choosing the appropriate intervention that makes sense and will have the desired impact in a given situation.

So here are four questions to ask yourself that might help you make that decision in the moment.


1. WHY: What’s my intention? What do I hope to achieve or change?


2. WHEN: Do I need to act now, or can I do it later? What is the risk of not saying something now? What is the risk of saying it now?


3. WHERE: Do I need to say this in public, in the presence of others, or would it be better done in private? How would others in the room feel if I do not say anything?


4. HOW: What’s the best way to achieve my goal? What are my options? Have I considered calling in rather than calling out? Where do I have power to make a positive impact?

It can feel scary to confront someone when they make a racist or sexist remark or decision, especially when they are senior, powerful or someone close to you – but it is worth it. Research confirms that speaking up, even in a small way, can actually make a positive difference. A study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science recently found when people were called out over their use of negative stereotypes about one group, it reduced their bigoted behaviour not only against that group, but also against other minorities and women as well[11].


It doesn’t have to be as scary as we sometimes think, and even a small act of speaking up, if done with the right intention, can have a huge, positive impact on others around you.



So next time you’re in that situation, when someone makes a racist joke or demonstrates (conscious or unconscious) bias in their judgment or actions, rather than feeling embarrassed, scared or overwhelmed and doing nothing, consider S.O.S. – the spectrum of speak-up – and ask yourself: what one action can I take?


[1] What is unconscious bias: See https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/publications/2015/unconscious-bias/

[2] Unconscious bias training to be scrapped by ministers: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-55309923

[3] Deloitte’s inaugural “2019 state of inclusion survey”: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/press-releases/new-deloitte-survey-finds-organizations-inclusion-efforts-may-not-be-addressing-one-of-the-biggest-barriers.html

[4] Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference by Chris Yates and Pooja Sachdev (Bloomsbury, 2016).

[5] The G. I. Joe Fallacy (Awareness isn’t enough to change behaviour): See https://www.edge.org/response-detail/25436

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/smarter-living/how-to-respond-to-microaggressions.html

[7] https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/guide-to-calling-in/

[8] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/prof-loretta-ross-on-calling-in-calling-out

[9] https://hbr.org/2020/07/when-and-how-to-respond-to-microaggressions

[10] https://www.activebystander.co.uk/how-to-intervene/

[11] https://anderson-review.ucla.edu/confront-bias/