Fighting Bias and Inequality at the Team Level

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Has there been a time where a coworker said something insensitive or just plain harmful, and you thought to yourself: They didn’t mean that, did they? They’re a good person. If I speak up, I might just make it worse. Or, I don’t want to hurt my working relationship. What can I even do?

For all the attention on diversity and inclusion efforts that organizations have been giving lately, the top-down approach can fall flat at the team level, especially, says today’s guest, when there is little follow through. We’re going to focus today at the individual and team level, the kind of “last-mile” of efforts to increase equity and fight bias.


Our guest today says we don’t have to default to silence in our teams. She works with companies to promote the active things each of us can do. Trier Bryant is the co-founder and CEO of Just Work, an organization with the goal of creating workplaces where everyone can do their best work. Trier, welcome.

TRIER BRYANT: Thanks for having me, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: What brought you to this work?

TRIER BRYANT: My life. Sitting at the intersections of being black and a woman, I would say I started doing this work when I was in middle school, in a private school where I integrated my class as the first non-white student. Even at that age, understanding the dynamics of when we are exclusive and we don’t get this right, the impact that it can have.

And so, I did that in middle school, high school, at the Air Force Academy, for the Air Force, and throughout my entire career, because I understand the power that it’s had just even in my own personal life of what happens when we get this right, when we can be inclusive, when you have a seat at the table and you know that your voice is being heard in an equitable way.

CURT NICKISCH: And you’re not tired of it yet?

TRIER BRYANT: No, actually, Curt, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted as a practitioner of this work, but I am exhausted also as just being a black woman in this country, particularly after the murder of George Floyd and the quite infuriating reactions and lack of reaction from organizations, companies, and the window dressing that we saw and the lack of accountability. It was just very hard to watch and also to be a practitioner and do this work to have organizations reach out and to push back and say, “You’re not doing this for the right reasons and we are not going to work with you.”

CURT NICKISCH: You used the term window dressing. A lot of people feel like the murder of George Floyd was a turning point in getting finally real action from organizations. Square that away for me, if you can.

TRIER BRYANT: There was an interesting… It was a tweet that was done where someone was tracking on a timeline beautifully companies when they actually did statements saying Black Lives Matter. There was this immediate pressure because very, very large brands that lead the way in this, that other organizations wait and take signals from, went to socials, posted, sent emails to their audiences, their consumers, and actually said Black Lives Matter.

There was a pressure to follow that lead. The Ben and Jerry’s, the Nike’s, the Google’s, there’s these larger organizations that are more forward in their communications of communicating something, but that doesn’t necessarily say that it’s followed with the appropriate action or support.

Although I will say that like the things that Ben and Jerry and Nike have done, truly they are leading the way. However, it’s one thing to put up a black square or tweet #BlackLivesMatter versus are you putting your money where your mouth is? Are you hiring black professionals? Are you supporting black professionals in your organization?

Are you paying them? Are you promoting them? Are you ensuring that they have the opportunities to thrive within your organization, not just survive? When companies say how hard diversity recruiting is and we can’t find talent, it’s a pipeline problem, one, it’s not and we have the numbers that show that. But the second thing that I always tell organizations is that I have a theory that most underrepresented professionals, particularly black professionals, are surviving in their organizations and they want something better.

CURT NICKISCH: I want to ask about the investment. A lot of companies have spent a lot of money on unconscious biased training, and they are trying to revamp their hiring and recruitment systems. They’ve hired VPs for DE&I. I mean, I think a lot of places would say that the money is going where their mouth is. It’s maybe just not working well yet. But what’s your assessment of that so far? What have you been seeing?

TRIER BRYANT: Okay, Curt, let’s go there. One. Research shows that unconscious bias training can actually do more harm than good, right? We actually have to give people practical and tactical tools on how to change behavior.

How I have directly seen how unconscious bias has actually done more harm. In a lot of tech organizations, I was at a tech company, and a lot of the engineering hiring managers were Asian and Asian immigrants that were not born, raised, or educated in the United States. And now they’re going through unconscious bias training and you’re telling them when you see a “black” name on a resume, you should look past that and not have a bias towards that. You’ve literally just introduced a bias of like what a black name is to these Asian hiring managers that have no context or framing of that.

CURT NICKISCH: Who may not have had the bias already.

TRIER BRYANT: Who didn’t have that bias, but you literally just introduced that. A lot of the unconscious bias training is also very U.S.-centric. And if you do not have the context and the historical context and references of that, you’re literally introducing bias to folks, right?

Two. We say, okay, organizations are putting resources. We’re putting resources where their mouth is. Are they really though? We had an organization that signed a six figure DE&I engagement with us. It was supposed to be a 12 month engagement. We probably worked with them for seven months and we did about one month of work over those seven months. They had leadership changes. They were like, “We want to hire a DE&I leader to work with you.” There was all of these excuses. Then their new CEO came in and said, “We’ve just decided that we’re not going to move forward with this.”

then fast forward in their annual DE&I report, they applauded themselves for the money that they had put behind the strategy. You spent the money, but you literally did not do the work and you wasted it. Let’s be cautious about when we see these organizations and the money that they’re spending, which is actually like, are they actually following through, putting in the effort, and what is the output of that investment that they’re making.

CURT NICKISCH: So organizations haven’t necessarily been doing the best job at this. What do you think about improving culture at the team level – how do you and your company approach this?

TRIER BRYANT: Having done this work for over 15 years, we have found every way to talk about it. We need more frameworks that give people tools where they can again, change behavior. It has to be practical and it has to be tactical at the team level. But then there also should be solutions for the appropriate leaders and stakeholders that are accountable to this.

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When we’re talking about the Just Work framework, and shout out to Kim Scott, author of the book and really created this framework, but Kim Scott believes that you can solve all the world’s problems in a two by two. If you know her work from Radical Candor, right? The power of a two by two.

The two by two that we have with the Just Work framework is optimizing for collaboration on one axis, and then respecting individuality on the other. On the opposite side of collaboration is coercing. We don’t want to work in this environment where we’re coercing folks to do what they should be doing. We want them to collaborate. We want to optimize for collaboration. Then on the other axis we have, again, respecting individuality or demanding conformity. We don’t want to demand conformity. We want to respect everyone’s individuality.

Human’s superpower that makes us so unique is our power to collaborate. Harm gets in the way of this. It deteriorates collaboration, it reduces efficiency, and it doesn’t allow us to perform, to have these high performing teams and high performing organizations.

Before we talk about how we define the root causes of this harm and this injustice that happens in the workplace, let’s talk about the roles, because we all have a role to play. There’s four roles that we can all play, and we all have played, and we can go between these roles very quickly. The first role is the person who’s harmed, and their role when you’re being harmed is that you get to choose a response. I really want to focus on the word choose because we don’t want to rob this person of their agency. It’s the only role where we feel like their role has a choice. Because sometimes, and I could tell you, this happens to me often, I don’t have the time, the patience, or the energy to respond.

But when you are harmed, you have a choice on how to respond and when to respond. The second role is the person who causes harm, and the person who causes harm has a role to listen and address, right? Listen and learn and address a situation in a respectful way. The third role are upstanders. Upstanders are bystanders that actually go into action and their role is to intervene. I want to leave all of your listeners to empower them that when you find yourself being a bystander, what can you do to be an upstander and intervene? We’ll leave you with some tools to do that.

And then lastly, the role is a leader, and leaders absolutely have a responsibility to prevent. Leaders, we have to prevent these workplace injustices and harm from occurring. Now, listen, we are dealing with humans, right? And that means that inevitably, people are going to get it wrong. But what can we do so that we can stop the problem from perpetuating happening again and exacerbating into something different? You’ve got people harmed, person who causes harm, upstanders, and leaders. Those are the four roles that we play anytime we’re in these situations.

CURT NICKISCH: Is the harm that’s caused in team settings… I mean, this can be like anywhere from like deliberate bullying to harm that comes from prejudice and then harm that comes from somebody who didn’t mean it, right? It’s the unconscious bias at work. Where do you think the most work has to happen in a lot of organizations today?

TRIER BRYANT: So let’s name the root causes of what we feel this injustice and this harm comes from. The three root causes that we define are bias, prejudice, and bullying. The simple definitions that we use in the framework is bias is not meaning it. It’s unconscious. Prejudice is meaning it, that means someone means a harmful stereotype. And then bullying is just quite frankly being mean with the intent to cause harm.

Curt, let me just tell you, even just laying that out for your listeners, right? A lot of folks are going to be listening to this and saying, “Okay, bias, prejudice, bullying, not meaning it, meaning it, being mean. Okay, simple.” And then you’re going to start thinking of your own experiences of your life from your both professional and probably personal.

That is what’s so powerful about this framework is that our stories bring the framework to life. When Kim first sent me the book and I read this, I had this, as my auntie Oprah likes to say, this aha moment, because I had never thought that I had been bullied in my career. Because I didn’t have the… I couldn’t name it. And because I couldn’t name it, I couldn’t solve it, right?

CURT NICKISCH: And it didn’t me look like somebody yelling in your face or tripping you as you walked down the hallway.

TRIER BRYANT: Exactly. Because for me, I was just like, look, have you met me? Captain Bryant, Trier Bryant. If you come for me, I’m going to come for you. No, I haven’t been bullied in my career. And then Kim Scott is like, “Oh, Trier, just being mean like with the intent to cause harm.” And then I was like, oh my goodness, I have been bullied so much in my career, but I never stood up for myself. I never anyone asked anyone to hold anyone else accountable because I couldn’t name it. And if we can’t name it, then we can’t solve for it. So going back to your question of where do organizations have the most work to do? Across all of them, because we see this harm done everywhere. We see the bias. We see the prejudice. We see the bullying.

I think bias is more prevalent. And because we don’t feel comfortable disrupting the bias, we allow it to metastasize, and then it turns into other things, particularly when power is introduced, that bias can very quickly turn into discrimination.

Prejudice and bullying, I think that can be a little bit more pronounced and people can say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Maybe that’s crossing the line,” but bias, we have to disrupt bias because that harm that bias causes in the workplace is really heavy. I’m not sure if your listeners are familiar with the concept of the invisible tax, right? I tell folks like biases, think of it like a mosquito bite. Curt, if you have like one mosquito bite and you’re itching that mosquito bite, it’s okay. It’s a little annoying, but you can handle it, right?

I would say a lot of cisgender white men in the workplace, they have maybe a mosquito bite from time to time, right? You don’t think anything of it. But I can tell you, Curt, that as a black woman in professional spaces, I’m probably walking around with 50 mosquito bites at any given time. Can you imagine the difference of me attempting to get my work done with 50 mosquito bites, that I am itching and getting continued bitten at the same time, and there’s an expectation for me to do my work, do my job and do it well, versus Curt where maybe once a month you have a mosquito bite?

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CURT NICKISCH: Let’s talk about harm that’s been caused in a team setting. Maybe it was something simple. Maybe it was something that wasn’t meant or intended, something that came from unconscious bias and how to address that in the team setting.

TRIER BRYANT: Yeah, absolutely. We tell this story about Aileen Lee, who’s a venture capitalist. Aileen and her team, which were three other men, walked into a meeting with some investors. Now, Aileen was the lead on this team and this meeting. They come into the room to go in the meeting. Aileen sits down, and then her team sits down and the other investors are coming that are all men. They all sit around the other men on Aileen’s team, leaving Aileen at the end of the table dangling, right? They start the meeting and all the questions from the investors, they’re asking them to the men on their team and they’re leaving Aileen out of the conversation.

One of the other team members on Aileen’s team said, “I think Aileen and I should switch seats.” So Aileen in this moment is the person who’s being harmed with this bias and the person who said I, using an I statement, “I think Eileen and I should switch seats,” that was the upstander who intervened. It was something as simple as switching seats with Aileen that changed the dynamic of that meeting. Now, let’s talk about why that upstander did that. One, it was the right thing to do, right, because of that bias situation and that harm that was being caused to Aileen of not being included in that. But number two, also from a practical perspective is that Aileen was the lead. And in order for them to close that deal, Aileen was the one that needed to be answering the questions and leading that conversation so that they could close the deal. I would also argue that the bystander did that because not only was it the right thing to do, but it was what needed to happen so that they could close the deal.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s interesting that the harm wasn’t called out, right? It’s sort of like short circuits to a solution, but maybe leaves room to talk about that afterwards.

TRIER BRYANT: Yeah. We don’t have to call out the harm, so to speak. There’s instances where you may have to – may explain, it’s appropriate or other times where it’s not. I don’t think that in this moment it made sense to talk about the actual harm that was occurring, but it was more so about the impact and how to change that dynamic so that that bias was no longer occurring. However, I have been in meetings, one of the first meetings that Kim and I had with our team. At the time, everyone were black women and Kim as a white woman. And we were talking about our calendars and how we were going to put things on our calendars. Kim said, “Look, just put it on my calendar because I am a slave to my calendar.”

What’s really interesting is in that moment, I knew the harm that was being done to the rest of the black folks that were in that meeting by Kim using a slavery analogy. But Kim and I had just started working together, so I didn’t feel comfortable of disrupting that bias in that moment. After the meeting, I called Kim. I brought it to Kim’s attention, and Kim was like, “I don’t even know why I said that. I know better than saying that. But thank you for flagging that, calling me in on that.” We say, calling in versus calling out. She said, “But Trier, when it happens, do it in the moment, right? And I said okay.”

We have bias disruptors. This is what we talk about leaders implementing to disrupt bias is that you have to have bias disruptors so people know and have the tools on how to flag bias in that moment. The three things you need to create bias disruptors is a shared vocabulary, a shared norm, and a shared commitment.

Now, the shared vocabulary is a word or phrase that whenever someone says it, everyone knows that someone has just flagged bias or noticed bias. We have teams and clients that say bias alert, stop sign, stop, red light. On our team, we say purple flag. We throw purple flags left and right, and that’s our shared vocabulary of flagging bias. You throw a purple flag.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s obviously established then.

TRIER BRYANT: It’s established by the team. Well, the leader shouldn’t pick it. It’s not a word that the leader says, “This is going to be our word. We use it.” Let the team come together, right? It’s an exercise. We have a client right now that they had employees volunteer ideas and now they’re voting on it, right? It can be a team exercise because everyone has to use it. We also have a team where cats are a part of their culture. They meow at each other. If you’re in a meeting and someone meow, they know, hey, we’re disrupting bias, right? Whatever works for your team.

After you have your shared vocabulary, then you have your shared norm. This is really important, Curt, because this is where people find the most discomfort. We got to make sure that we know, we give people the tools of what to do. The shared norm is once we flag, then what do we do? Because now you have a person who’s being harmed that might be uncomfortable and the person who’s causing harm that might be uncomfortable and potentially an upstander.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s been brought to everybody’s attention because you’ve got the code word, whether or not your team uses that or somebody is just speaking up at the moment. It is one of those moments where it’s like the red wine falling on the white carpet. It’s just everybody’s fixated and time stops for a second.

TRIER BRYANT: What happens now? Time stops. So, you have to have your shared norm. We recommend the first is, whoever is a person who has caused harm, if you’re being called in on that harm of that bias, first say thank you. Because it takes courage for someone else to call you in on that bias, right? First say thank you. And then the next thing you’re going to say is either, “Yes, I get it. Thank you for flagging me saying, ‘Guys, I’ve been working on my inclusive language. Thanks for holding me accountable,’” or, “Actually, Trier, I don’t get it. What do you mean by flagging that I just use the term a slave to my calendar,” right? And then we can explain it and it can be a learning moment.

CURT NICKISCH: When that happens, it’s so natural to be defensive. I didn’t mean it. I’m a good person, or you’re taking it the wrong way. I mean, there are just so many things that are not helpful to say in that moment. Here you’re just trying to like slow it down, get over the emotion of it, and listen.

TRIER BRYANT: And Curt, in this remote environment, we are seeing this happen real time, even over like Zoom or whatever other platform that folks use, where you can drop it in the chat. We drop purple squares in the chat or just purple flag, and then you either explain it in the chat real quick and everyone in the meeting can read it and understand it and the meeting is still going on, or I’ve dropped a link to an article that explains it. We were actually in a meeting where someone used the term grandfathering. I said, “Purple flag. Keep going, but I’m going to drop an article to explain why we can find better language for that.” Dropped an article that explained the historical context of grandfathering in the United States.

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Everyone was like, “Oh!” Some people were like, “Yeah, I knew that. I don’t use that term.” Folks were like, “I never knew that. I can find different language.” It’s so simple as that, that we can still get the work done. It doesn’t disrupt the work. Going back to the example with Kim, so how this works in real time. Then a couple weeks later, Kim and I were doing a podcast. Kim says… She was talking about an agency problem with HR. She said, “Well, the problem with HR is that they serve multiple masters.” I said, “Purple flag.” Immediately as I said purple flag, Kim goes, “Again, me using slavery metaphors.” We explained on the podcast what had just happened.

But I felt comfortable doing that real time because we had the bias disruptors in place, that we knew that we could do it real time. We are expecting that real time, and we know what to do. That’s where the third thing that we need where it comes in is that commitment. You need that shared commitment from the team that we’re all going to be committed to this. We’re going to do it real time. And that it’s expected and it’s wanted.

CURT NICKISCH: What do you do when the leader is not really on board with this? But the team is.

TRIER BRYANT: Yeah, that can be hard. I think it comes back to an organization… Really thinking about what is an organization’s values? What are their values? What’s the culture that they want to have? Because again, there are some that maybe this doesn’t align with their culture and that’s okay, or their values and that’s okay. But then that means that your talent and your employees, they get to choose if that’s where they want to work and they can go somewhere else. I talk a lot about Coinbase, because there’s a lot of criticisms for Coinbase of them taking their position of, “We don’t talk about politics at work. We focus on our work.” I know some senior leaders at Coinbase. I know some junior folks at Coinbase.

I have someone that actually previously worked for me at Goldman and Twitter who got an offer from Coinbase and turned it down because of that. She said, “I cannot imagine working at an organization,” and she’s a black woman, “working at an organization through Black Lives Matter and not having a space to talk about that as a black professional.” And then right now with the conversations around women’s rights, reproductive rights, not having a space to talk about that at work, or just knowing that everyone’s going to tip toe around it and we’re not going to talk about it, even though we know everyone is thinking about it, and it’s impacting a lot of folks at the organization.” That’s Coinbase’s choice. What I appreciate about Coinbase is that they’ve drawn that line in the sand. That is their code of conduct. That is how they hold folks accountable, and it is very clear.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. At least its communicated, right?

TRIER BRYANT: And people get to make that choice. I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong. I want people to be clear so that everyone can make a choice on if they choose to work and bring their talent and their skillset to that environment.

CURT NICKISCH: A lot of people work at organizations where it’s not very clear, right? Organizations are trying to create more inclusive workplaces. They’re trying to get better. They carry a lot of baggage of how they’ve operated in the past and who’s leading the company and everything else. What can an individual contributor at a company do to try to pair up with any top down efforts and really try to from the bottom up push their organizations forward? I mean, this shouldn’t be their responsibility, right?

TRIER BRYANT: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that folks can do, particularly individual contributors, junior folks, is we need to have the same expectation when it comes to our diversity, equity and inclusion strategy the way that we would have with our product roadmap. We have to have the same diligence, the same bar of what is a strategy, put it to paper, accountability, and be able to measure it, right?

And to also say, if we don’t have the expertise inside to do that, then go find someone. I don’t care if it’s just work. I don’t care who it is. Go find a real expert practitioner that can help you do it, the same way that you would go hire contract communications folks if you had a comms project, right? We will go out and seek experts in everything else except for DE&I.

We just think that because someone is from an underrepresented group or because someone is vocal about it, that they have the answers and they can do it. Curt, I say that that’s as silly as both of us saying, “Well, we both have teeth, and so we don’t need a dentist.” It’s just doesn’t make any sense that we allow organizations just to continue to sit around and talk about it versus saying, “Where is the strategy? Where can I point to it? Who is being held accountable to it? And who is the actual expert person that’s capable of driving this and yielding the results that we expect?” Look, sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, DE&I, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” It’s actually not a marathon either. Because for those of us who have run a marathon, we are appreciative that there is a destination and you stop. Okay?

It is a journey. It is a continued journey that requires every day effort, right? DE&I is not going to the gym one time and working out for three hours and saying, “I’m in shape.” It’s going to the gym three times a week and doing cardio the other two days a week. It’s a daily investment.

CURT NICKISCH: Trier, this has been really great talking to you. Thanks so much for sharing the framework and your own personal and professional experiences on the show.

TRIER BRYANT: Curt, thank you so much for having me. This has been great.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Trier Bryant. She’s the CEO and co-founder of Just Work.

If you got something from today’s episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, manage others, and manage organizations. Find them at or search HBR and Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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