In this article I argue that it is impossible to fully develop cognitive diversity unless implicit and explicit knowledge in relation to an organisation’s culture, ideally, from the perspective of an ‘insider’ (Baskin, 2019) has been explored. Insiders have the capacity to bring tacit cultural knowledge to consciousness for a fuller exploration of the organisation’s cultural assumptions, central systems of meaning, tacit knowledge concerning the organisation’s primary sources of control and authority as well as knowledge pertaining to their subjects. In short, an insider’s cultural analysis is more likely to uncover potential roadblocks for developing cognitive diversity in the workplace.

Currently, COVID-19 is challenging senior leaders and their employees in ways not previously experienced. For instance, senior leaders are wrestling with strategies to entice their employees back to the office as well as grappling with engagement approaches to help keep their employee’s emotions and commitment tied to the organisation over virtual forums. Perhaps now, senior leaders would benefit from thinking, talking and reflecting about the concept of cognitive diversity, not only for the purpose of employee engagement, but also, to help ride out the COVID-19 storm by tapping into diverse cognition across the occupational community in order to solve the organisation’s current problems. COVID-19 could, therefore, be viewed as an ideal catalyst for senior leaders and their employees to think, reflect and engage in ways they have not previously considered. To begin this discussion, let’s first explore both the conceptual and empirical complexities of cognitive diversity.

Conceptual definitions of cognitive diversity are multifarious and can be interpreted as rather inconsistent across various literature including the professional and academic variety. While theoretically it is hard for researchers to distinctively agree on what cognitive diversity is and what it is not, empirically, it is more difficult to make a claim about the value of cognitive diversity in the workplace since there appear to be a million ways to construe it and empirically test it, each method with perceived benefits and pitfalls. How then, can senior leaders assess the degree of cognitive diversity in their workplace? Moreover, how can senior leaders develop a framework for cognitive diversity in alignment with the organisation’s strategy, structure and culture? Given the conflicting literature, it is conceivable that senior leaders and their employees perceive cognitive diversity as unclear, confusing and perhaps not worth pursuing. Yet, senior leaders do have available to them some control over the matter. New knowledge can be generated and shared and, therefore, potential value recognised in developing frameworks specific to the needs of each organisation by considering three levels of analysis, a point which this article will return.

According to Shin, Kim, Lee and Bian (2012), cognitive diversity is the difference in thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values and beliefs among people in teams. Yet, this conceptual definition does not entirely capture an important psychological dimension, notably, developing new neural pathways through learning. Continuous education and professional expertise deepens an employee’s level of influence when expressing their viewpoints. Hence Tegarden, Tegarden and Sheetz’s (2009) conceptual definition of cognitive diversity, in my view, should also be considered. Tegarden, Tegarden and Sheetz (2009) argue that education, professional experience and personal background are fundamental to a conceptual definition of cognitive diversity. Taking these conceptual definitions together is a reasonable starting point. However, as mentioned, to build a framework for developing cognitive diversity, a deeper analysis of an organisation’s strategy, structure and culture are necessary. In this article, I discuss only one component, that is, the need for a fuller exploration of an organisation’s culture, ideally from an insider's viewpoint to ascertain the organisation's systems of cultural meaning as well as any potential roadblocks that could inhibit developing a framework for cognitive diversity. Let’s consider how an 'insider' goes about gaining cultural knowledge.

Gaining Cultural Knowledge

Very broadly, most senior leaders and management consultants alike have reduced their understanding of culture by adopting a range of oversimplified measures that use an outsider’s language with pre-populated answers to ascertain how ‘good,’ ‘not good’ or some variation between the two extremes an organisation’s culture is claimed to be. Despite the overwhelming dislike of questionnaires as broadly experienced by employees, external consultants, senior leaders and their direct reports send questionnaires to their team members in hope the scores reflect high levels of engagement and indications that the culture is experienced as, more or less, ‘good.’ Some line managers personally request their employees answer survey questions favourably, as one of my past research participants from a Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company said:

The company survey, well, it doesn’t give me the opportunity to be honest and be myself and really say what I think is happening. Apparently, it’s anonymous. However, the whole team was sent the previous year’s results from our manager. She even sent an email saying, “our survey results last year were amazing and I hope to see them even better this year”…Before she mentioned the survey in the email, she told us how proud she was of everyone, for our resilience, professionalism, self-motivation, hard work and friendship and that she feels she is leading a high performing team…The questions were more or less based on a rating scale of one to five, one being the lowest and five being the highest. I lied, because I didn’t want to be found out or weeded out because the previous year’s results were available and I was the only new team member so if there was something that went against the grain, she would know it was a response to the survey made by me…She got a perfect score. [1]

As mentioned, one significant problem with questionnaires in terms of measuring an organisation’s culture is that employees try to interpret the questions based on an outsider’s language. It is not too far a stretch to suggest that in organisational life, interpretations made either in response to verbal or written content, can skew. Aside from the language issue, surveys do not consider the underlying systems of meaning of the organisation’s dominant culture nor its various subcultures. Moreover, questionnaires do not consider both superficial and deep dimensions of an organisation’s culture. For instance, unlike the cultural work carried out by an insider, culture surveys do not identify nor have the capacity to interpret an organisation’s artefacts and deeper guidelines or rules for action, let alone the capacity to identify emerging cultural rules which transpire under an employee’s threshold of consciousness.

I am arguing that surveys are broadly disliked by employees, generally over oversimplified, often misleading and distorted by way of interpretation by employees who complete them. Let us now discuss how a nuanced approach for the analysis of an organisation’s culture, that is, from an ‘insider’s’ (Baskin, 2019) perspective could be of value in determining how cognitive diversity can be developed within it, starting with the organisation’s cultural artefacts.

Cultural artefacts are tangible and accessible in terms of our sensory experience. For instance, you enter your place of work every day. You walk to reception and enter the lifts to reach your hot-desk. What do you observe and experience along the way? The corporate dress code or codes? The mood in the office? People tied to their mobile phones or their computer screens? What do colleagues express and to whom? What are the senior execs doing and saying? What about front-line staff? How do they differ in terms of behaviour in comparison to senior leaders or those in head office? What about the demographic profiles reflected across various levels of the occupational hierarchy? What interpretations, if any, can be made? In other words, an artefact is anything that is concrete in nature. Artefacts are superficial dimensions of culture. On their own, artefacts do not give us enough cultural information. From this perspective, artefacts need to be coupled with cultural knowledge derived at a much finer level of analysis.

Let’s take the organisation’s institutionalised language. What styles of language do people use to express themselves? Is it casual, formal, in between or context specific? Do members speak to each other differently depending on tenure, seniority, level of education or cultural differences? What about forums for expression and the differences in language experienced when others, either above, below or of equal occupational stature are involved? What interpretations, if any, can be made about the jargon and specific technicalities reflected in the organisation’s institutionalised language?

What about the values of the organisation? Most companies have a vision statement, a mission statement and of course, they have their prescribed values. What are they? Are the values espoused or are they enacted? By whom? And is employee behaviour consistent with the organisation’s values across the occupational community? Are values recalled easily? How would one know if the values have been internalised by senior leaders and their employees? Do staff pretend to enact the company values in front of their line managers or senior leaders? Are performances authentic? And what about values that are informally practiced? In other words, values that aren't necessarily written in black and white. How would one recognise informal values or the emergence of them as a result of a crisis such as COVID-19?

What about the organisation’s reward and recognition programmes? Who is rewarded for their work and are rewards based on merit or some other implicit metric? Are there any demographic patterns associated with those who are rewarded implicitly? If so, what are those patterns? How is behaviour positively reinforced, by whose standards and through what measures? And why is this the case?

What about employee sanctions, punishments or performance management strategies? If an employee is showing misalignment to the organisation’s strategic priorities, structural dynamics and or culture, how is behaviour managed or controlled in such cases? Under what conditions are employees allowed to stay on? Would those conditions be consistently reflected across all staff members within the organisation or are employees measured and sanctioned depending upon transient, context specific issues or other factors?

Moreover, organisational symbols are cultural phenomena worth considering. Founders are symbols. For instance, Steve Jobs was a symbol of innovation. Steve Jobs inspired many people both within Apple and external to it. From this perspective, all organisations start from their founders who often have strong symbolic connections to their national culture. One of the most fundamental tasks for senior leaders is to be able to shift their own personality in a direction that is suitable for a growing organisational social system.

Perhaps your CEO started the organisation in their shed. That's a powerful story! Schematic images such as one of the founders slogging away for peanuts to build the organisation from the bottom upwards may be internalised by employees making them feel uniquely part of the organisation’s social reality. Put differently, an employee may bind their sense of self to the organisation’s mission and its strategic priorities if and when interpreting and internalising such narratives. Indeed, each employee comes to work with a backstory. Senior leaders who tap into their employee’s narratives have an advantage in that these stories can be used as vehicles for normative control (Kunda, 2009) by developing commonalities between them and their teams in some way, shape or form.

Another symbol worth considering is the organisation’s logo and the meaning it may induce to an organisation’s customer base and to its employees. What can be made from the interpretation of a logo? Logo’s may have narratives attached to them and shared during behavioural socialisation inductions or company training. In addition, specific narratives that aim to tie employee emotions and commitment to the company are often expressed by senior leaders. Narratives of this sort are usually coupled with corporate rhetoric in order to promote a view of consensus to employees by helping them align their behaviour to the organisation’s culture.

How about the organisation's strategic priorities? Is the organisation purely profit driven? Or are its senior leaders balancing the need for generating profit with a focus on employee health and well being? What combination of factors determine the organisation’s strategic priorities? If so, what are they? And why?

The questions highlighted above are by no means exhaustive. Nonetheless, they are important for senior leaders and their employees to unpack, understand and reflect upon should they wish to determine a baseline level of knowledge pertaining to the underlying systems of meaning and potential assumptions that can be made of their organisation’s culture. From here, senior leaders and their teams can embark upon a discussion around the relationship between the organisation’s culture and developing a potential framework specific to the company’s needs for cognitive diversity. Now, of central concern, this article explains how an organisation’s system of cultural meaning may manifest.

Centrality of Culture

While cultures within organisations emerge, culture, like most tacit phenomena has a point of origin. This point of origin typically includes a range of factors, including but not limited to, the founder’s values, beliefs, worldviews and the rules, both written and unwritten that the founder or the organisation’s senior executives expect their employees to follow. In other words, while culture emerges and re-emerges over time, there is a large portion of an organisation’s culture which is prescribed, described, reinforced, espoused and enacted by senior leaders. From this perspective, those at the top of the occupational hierarchy are positioned at the center of an organisation’s culture, yet, senior executives are not always those who hold the most power in organisations.

Senior leaders usually exercise their power and authority over the management of the organisation’s culture in order to get employees to do what they want them to do. From this perspective, senior leaders are in charge of prescribing and describing the organisation’s culture, either directly, for instance, through performance ritual or indirectly, through delegating tasks to their direct reports including People and Culture teams amongst others. The control that senior leaders possess over an organisation’s culture is normative in the sense that employees expect such actions from their leaders. From this perspective, senior leaders work as the organisation’s primary agents of normative control (Kunda, 2009) by ensuring their employees do that which they would not otherwise do (Ailon, 2006) in alignment with the organisation’s culture. However, if we take a closer look at the demographic profiles of ASX listed companies, the primary agents of normative control, in other words, those at the center of culture typically reflect, more or less, one specific cohort.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Blueprint on Cultural Diversity in Leadership (2016), more than 75% of CEOs are of Anglo-Celtic heritage. 18% have European heritage and 5% are from a non-European background.[2] Unfortunately, when this report was published, no CEOs had Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage in these 200 companies. In addition, the AHRC’s Leading for Change (2018) report determined that while 97% of the nearly 2500 executives surveyed had Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds, the report explained those with an Indigenous and non-European background accounted for 24% of the population, however, these cohorts only comprised 5% of the senior leadership suite.[3,4]

Taking the facts above into consideration, if senior leaders deliberate upon the nation’s demographic diversity and contrast this reality with cohorts largely representing boards and senior leadership teams, it is conceivable that cognitive diversity may not get a mention in the boardroom, let alone a serious discussion about its potential value to an organisation’s strategic priorities and their outcomes. Moreover, how does national culture and the ideology that drives modern politics, as well as other factors including the lack of demographic diversity in our parliament affect the way senior leaders view, understand and legitimise culture in their organisations?

Perhaps one question worth reflecting upon is: what does one do with power once they have it? Alternatively, unpacking how senior leaders arrive in positions of authority is a worthy introspective pursuit. How did I get here? Why am I here? What do I make of my position within the occupational community? How does my position help or hinder my ability to contribute to the organisation and to its people? Am I all about profit? What is my legacy?

Those who do not demographically reflect the cohorts typically at the center of an organisation’s culture must however fit somewhere and they tend to fall someplace on the periphery. From this perspective, we might like to consider organisational sub-cultures or subgroups and those who would likely participate in them. According to Martin (2001), sub-cultures may be bound by occupational lines, including managerial, professional and or blue-collar employees. Organisational sub-cultures may also ‘proceed along functional or vertical lines, or on the basis of networks or personal contacts based on work, friendship or demographic identities such as race, ethnicity, gender’ and so forth (Martin, 2001:103). Indeed, organisational sub-cultures may have rigid or blurred boundaries. In some cases, employees of sub-cultures may also deliberately blur their boundaries (Kondo, 1990; Kunda, 2009). Taking Martin’s (2001) view, it is conceivable that greater demographic diversity could be observed within sub-cultures and subgroups.

For instance, consider the demographic diversity within an organisation’s front-line or sales team. Generally, front-line employees represent greater demographic diversity because there is both a perceived and realised economic value for hiring individuals who demographically reflect the company’s customer base. Front-line teams may represent demographic diversity in higher ratios in comparison to head office in relation to Cultural and Linguistic Diversity (CALD), LGBTIQ+, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people with disabilities, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, older and younger cohorts as well as those with diverse religious views, beliefs and cultural practices, diverse worldviews and so forth. Conceivably, if senior leaders venture toward the periphery of an organisation’s culture and expand their knowledge base concerning those who make up the organisation’s various sub-cultures and subgroups, it is possible that senior leaders may come to understand how members on the periphery come to view the organisation’s dominant culture and how they act with a finer level of detail. Indeed, the views held by peripheral members will more likely be varied, fragmented and at times opposing to the views held by senior leaders. In addition, perspectives flux because culture is not static. Culture emerges and re-emerges, it shifts and re-shifts based on a series of factors. Such factors, as previously explained, can be found both within the organisational environment and external to it such as COVID-19.

Moreover, if senior leaders decide to purposefully engage with staff members on the periphery of an organisation’s culture, how would they recognise if those staff members present authentic viewpoints? Or simply self-presentations that enact cultural alignment during encounters with sources of authority? As one of my research participants explained:

The culture, we have to talk about how fantastic the company is and we are always told to share how great things are about the company. There are endless WhatsApp messages, people putting up how fantastic their role is and all the fantastic things they have done throughout the day. If you are not that type of person, you get found out straight away and they are generally moved on.[5]

Indeed, most if not all employees seek job security. Thus, employees likely act differently in front of important others versus one’s team or even in isolation as a way to preserve their membership and its legitimacy within the organisation. This observation is quite obvious for organisational anthropologists who spend significant periods of time studying employees in the workplace, observing members closer to the center as well as members on the margins. Yet, the concept of marginality becomes increasingly complex when considering intersectionality. According to Collins and Bilge (2020), intersectionality investigates how categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, ethnicity and age intersect and how they are mutually shaping. Intersectionality, therefore, can be considered a way of understanding people and human experiences within the organisational setting. Indeed, marginal staff members who represent various degrees of intersectionality may experience unconscious (and conscious) bias and this experience may lead to social exclusion. Typically, social exclusion is a negative experience that reinforces a member's position on the periphery of an organisation’s culture. How senior leaders and their teams think and reflect about marginality and intersectionality is, therefore, imperative for developing cognitive diversity in the workplace.

Naturally, thoughts and reflections about oneself in the workplace might lead to thoughts and reflections about diverse others and hopefully a career long desire to learn something new about the organisation’s social reality and one’s actions within it. Learning about oneself and diverse others by bringing tacit cultural knowledge to consciousness, by design, expands the realm of cognitive diversity in the workplace, bringing with it an emerging framework.

A Framework for Developing Cognitive Diversity

This article proposes that when senior leaders and their employees purposefully ask questions to gain new knowledge at three levels of analysis, notably, the individual level, sub-cultural and subgroup level and in relation to both broader and finer levels of cultural knowledge, a useful framework for developing cognitive diversity emerges.

To extrapolate, at the individual level, it is important to revisit the conceptual definitions proposed by Shin, Kim, Lee and Bian (2012) who argued that cognitive diversity is the difference in thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values and beliefs. To recap, Tegarden, Tegarden and Sheetz’s (2009) conceptual definition proposed that education, professional experience and personal background reflects cognitive diversity. By taking these conceptual definitions together, senior leaders and their employees can bring to conscious awareness individual and collective thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, education, professional experience and personal backgrounds for a fuller exploration of individual and collective value. Indeed, intrinsic knowledge of this sort becomes increasingly valuable when it is shared. Hence, at the second level analysis, new knowledge is shared and gained across the occupational community.

At the second level of analysis, that is, at the sub-cultural and subgroup level as Martin (2001) and other scholars define it, individuals may share knowledge across 'occupational lines, including managerial, functional and or vertical lines, or on the basis of personal contacts and networks, friendship and demographic identities such as race, ethnicity or gender’ (Martin, 2001:103). Indeed, this task involves a great deal of curiosity, empathy and soft skills. Yet, this step should be carried out in combination with the third level of analysis, that is, gaining knowledge by asking questions concerning broader, finer and tacit details of the organisation’s culture, an employee’s alignment or misalignment to it, an employee’s position within it, in relation to peers, senior leaders and others across subgroups and the broader occupational hierarchy. By gaining knowledge and exploring insights in relation to these three levels of analysis, potential cultural roadblocks are exposed.

For instance, the organisation’s culture and its systems of meaning may reflect assumptions that are simply at odds with cognitive diversity. It may, for instance, broadly, or at a sub-cultural level reflect social exclusion, mistrust or it may lack necessary communication transparency amongst other factors which would likely inhibit effort at developing cognitive diversity. Such issues should be dealt with separately by senior leaders and their teams before going further. This work must precede the more complex yet valuable task, that of cultivating cognitive diversity in an effort to solve real-world problems the organisation is grappling with in aiming to achieve its strategic objectives.

At some point, however, the emerging data will likely reflect great contrast and a degree of middle-ground in relation to thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, education, professional experience and personal backgrounds. The data should equally expose knowledge gained through diverse others who form part of sub-cultures, subgroups and other membership groups including the executive leadership team as well as knowledge in relation to the organisation’s culture from the perspective of each staff member. This data must be assessed objectively, particularly when selecting the suitability of staff members for dealing with context specific problems and or crisis issues. Thus, employee suitability must be measured against a value contribution matrix for cognitive diversity in order to solve specific organisational problems with a sense of fairness.

A value contribution matrix for cognitive diversity proposes a storage and retrieval system of data concerning the potential value an employee can contribute to a particular problem, a crisis issue or to a specific organisational strategic objective. A value contribution matrix for cognitive diversity is based on data captured at three levels of analysis. In doing so, it deliberately avoids nepotism, favouritism and or any other preference for involving an individual other than their potential value to contribute based on fact. Indeed, not all employees are able to contribute equally to a particular problem or project. However, problems emerge at all levels of organisational work and hence, opportunities to contribute should be plentiful for all staff members.

At this point, it is important to reiterate that the proposed framework for developing cognitive diversity is oversimplified from the perspective that it has not taken into account various organisational structures that may shape how cognitive diversity plays out within the organisation. I will address the issue of organisational structure and cognitive diversity in an upcoming article. Nor does this article focus upon one, nor any specific organisational strategy to base this framework upon. As mentioned at the outset, a framework for developing cognitive diversity must consider, in detail, the organisation’s strategy, its structure and its culture. This article simply introduces one component for exploration, notably, how the organisation’s culture should be analysed in depth by an insider as well as by senior leaders and their employees before embarking upon developing a framework for cognitive diversity. In addition, developing a framework for cognitive diversity must first rectify problematic cultural roadblocks.


This article presented two key arguments and a framework for developing cognitive diversity. The first argument proposed that fully realising the potential of cognitive diversity in the workplace can only transpire if an organisation’s culture is analysed in depth by taking an insider’s view to understand the assumptions and the systems of cultural meaning to identify its potential roadblocks. The second argument proposed that an organisation's culture, its various subcultures as well as the demographic profiles associated to each should be critically analysed. By uncovering and critically discerning these factors within the organisational environment and across the occupational community, this article proposes that new knowledge is generated at three levels, notably, the individual, sub-cultural or subgroup level and the cultural level for which a framework for developing cognitive diversity can be built specific to the needs of the company.

About the author

T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.


1. Research interview with Sienna at FMCG company.

2. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC, 2016: 75–76) uses four broad classifications for cultural background. See Beyond the Pale: Cultural diversity on ASX 100 listed boards for definitions.

3. The Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016 and 2018.

4. The Australian Human Rights Commission (2019). Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural

diversity and inclusive leadership.

5. Research interview with Joanne at FMCG company.


Ailon, G. (2006). What B would otherwise do: a critique of conceptualizations of ‘power’ in organizational theory. Organization, 13 (6), 771-800.

Bruskin, S. (2019). Insider or outsider? Exploring the fluidity of the roles through social identity theory. Journal of Organizational Ethnography.

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2020). Intersectionality. John Wiley & Sons.

Kondo, D. K. (1990). Crafting selves: Power, gender, and discourses of identity in a Japanese workplace. University of Chicago Press.

Kunda, G. (2009). Engineering culture: Control and commitment in a high-tech corporation. Temple University Press.

Martin, J. (2001). Organizational culture: Mapping the terrain. Sage publications.

Shin, S. J., Kim, T. Y., Lee, J. Y., & Bian, L. (2012). Cognitive team diversity and individual team member

creativity: A cross-level interaction. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 197-212.

Tegarden, D. P., Tegarden, L. F., & Sheetz, S. D. (2009). Cognitive factions in a top management team: Surfacing and analysing cognitive diversity using causal maps. Group Decision and Negotiation, 18(6), 537-566.

Covid-19 fell upon us in March. We were forced to lock down. I received some wise advice: ‘Use this time as a gift.’ Interesting, albeit unexpected, questions emerged from these six words, entrusted for my idiosyncratic interpretation: just what is this concept called ‘time?’ An illusionary construct? A finite resource? I asked myself what I consider a ‘gift’ these days? 

On the face of it, this directive seemed, to me at least, an effortless exercise. I would simply immerse myself in the normal activities in which I already invest a great deal of time – learning in its various forms; researching; reading; writing and collaborating, in short, responsibilities required by my profession, and through which I feel very fortunate. Yet, I asked myself, were these efforts adequate? Was I cheapening the opportunity to reflect? This was, after all, in my lifetime, an unprecedented pandemic.

After much rumination, I was relieved and thankful to see a partial resolution arise from the juxtaposition of ‘time’ and ‘gift.’ Settling upon an idea which emerged naturally several days later, I could apply the concept of ‘time’, a resource, and ‘gift’, a contribution, with a refined depth of authenticity. At least, this was my aim: to understand the life histories and stories of external others; in essence, to understand what made life meaningful through their eyes. 

I chose to document, as much as my conscious mind would allow and my experiences enable, my moment to moment feelings, thoughts, actions and reflections. It was clear that something important was shared through each encounter. Yet, as I read over my notes, at times, my thinking embodied over-generalisations, over-simplifications and, at the other extreme, thinking that went too far: over-theorising, over-intellectualising, in order to make sense of my encounters and the meaning others attributed to their life stories.

It was also I who cut stories short of their intrinsic value – not through dialogue, but through my own in situ or retrospective thoughts about their stories. In other words, perceiving and interpreting only partially what was on offer, not the entirety of what their story really meant to them. My writing further mirrored to me another significant insight. When my mind was immersed in daily hassles – mostly of my own choosing – I lacked a degree of responsiveness. The Covid-19 lock down reduced the long commutes, the fast-paced rhythms of life. 

Many of these encounters showed people’s concerns about the blurring of home and work boundaries. Others were forced to manage interesting challenges, one example - homeschooling three boys under ten as a single parent while managing expectations in a new job. As one person put it: ‘This is my eternal hell.’ Pleasantly, positive outcomes of lock down also emerged. On the good side of the great Corona divide, some lucky individuals seized the opportunity to start new projects or embark upon creative pursuits. Others utilised lock down to further enrich relationships with family members, dream up new careers or read unexplored, diverse genres. Overall, most seemed to enjoy the slower pace. The facts of life prior to, and during, Covid-19 appeared to offer some renewed perspectives on what it meant to lead a meaningful life and all the excitement that comes with the journey of conjuring up new adventures. 

However, pleasant stories of the utopian kind did not reflect the experiences of all those whom I encountered. Let me introduce Mark*: a homeless, middle-aged white man living in the nooks and crannies of North Sydney’s business district. Somehow, Mark’s life story made its way to me. We began to talk.

Here is Mark’s story:

I initially walked passed Mark. Yet, moments later, I felt that I had a duty to be responsive to him – a responsibility to return and provide help in whatever form the circumstances would allow. This time, monetary help was not enough. It is a well know fact that giving money to the poor is not a sustainable solution for reducing poverty.

Mark did not look up to see that someone was approaching, seeming somewhat comforted by his empty wine bottles, holding one, it appeared he had just consumed, in his right hand. ‘Have you had anything to eat today?’ ‘I haven’t eaten since midday.’ ‘Would you like me to buy you something to eat?’ ‘Yes, just a little sandwich if that is ok?’ A modest request for a man who apparently possessed very little. ‘Sure, wait here, and I’ll bring you something. I’ll be back in 10 minutes.’ How was it that Mark was living on the streets of the lower North Shore, an affluent socio-economic area of Sydney? What circumstances led to Mark’s state of homelessness? Did he have a family? Did he once have a job? In essence, why did this happen to Mark? And was it by choice?

It was cold, and Mark didn’t appear to be warm enough to get through the night. What warmth or comfort could a concrete slab provide, particularly on the Pacific Highway? Arriving with two bags of various foods: an assortment of breads, fruits, vegetables, two large bottles of water, snack bars, chocolate and the sandwich he requested, Mark seemed to be in his own world. He was whispering something to himself. Given Mark's facial expressions, it appeared this was an important and rather complex intra-personal conversation. An external other should think twice before interrupting. Mark looked up and took hold of the grocery bags. He temporarily paused, with a contemplative stare, seemingly processing something important, perhaps a distant memory? Moments later, Mark then began to scan the contents within each bag.

It seemed that Mark may have been suspicious at the outset, but he allowed our dialogue to continue: ‘I’ve been ou' here, on the stree', for over a year.’ ‘I have a frien' in the buildin', he lets me stay around here, so yeah, I stay around here.’ ‘If I am not around here, I am up there,’ Mark was pointing toward Walker Street, a busy street perpendicular to the Pacific Highway. Mark arranged then rearranged the items in the grocery bags, but would not go as far as to select an item to eat. Perhaps Mark couldn’t choose? Would Mark’s palate reject the taste of healthy fruits and veggies? Would they be a shock to his digestive system – accustomed mostly to his routine consumption of booze and smokes? Would Mark choose the carrot sticks over the chocolate? What did Mark’s body crave? His choice, in any case! 

Mark actually lost his job before the pandemic hit. I had previously learned, by reading over my notes, that it would be at precisely this point that my over-generalised thoughts might form. Suspending thoughts and persisting with the conversation, it was only retrospectively that I considered that maybe Mark didn’t want to share such personal insights with a complete stranger? Perhaps Mark wanted to be left alone? Did Mark feel uncomfortable because of the disparities of privilege? I had learned, through my work, research and through personal experience, that disparities of this sort can make those less privileged divulge personal information without wanting to. And, who was I to provide an empathetic ear, when I personally have not battled homelessness? In essence, I was critical of the degree to which Mark considered our dialogue worthwhile. Yet, here I was, asking, and here Mark was, answering.

‘Yeah, before I lived ou' here, I worked as a security officer.’ ‘There's a legal matter, it’s goin' on.’ ‘Yeah, a legal matter, it’s still on, goin' on, it wasn’t my fault though.’ A legal dispute drove Mark to live on the streets – he couldn’t afford the legal fees. Mark didn’t want to elaborate on the legalities of the matter. After some time, my sensibilities suggested that Mark appreciated the opportunity to talk. Sitting next to him, listening to his story, his endless challenges, his misfortunes. Mark looked apathetic and somewhat defeated. There was much more to Mark and his circumstances, however, to the best of my knowledge and to the extent that I understood him, Mark ended up a homeless man through no fault of his own. Who was I to say otherwise?

Staring blankly at his feet, Mark struggled to look up. As Mark listened to his very own story, it appeared his heart and mind were experiencing a disordered mixture of feelings - powerlessness, apathy and shame.

Mark’s fingertips were black, his round bloated belly uncovered, his pants ripped and his shoes frayed. ‘Life is hard on the stree', people harass me. Treat me badly, but I try and give it back, I try to defen' myself. I don’t deserve to live like this.’ 

Eventually, it was time for me to leave. Mark finally looked at me, his head raised a little, enough for his dull blue eyes to meet mine as we said goodbye. ‘Thank you, what you did for me is very kind.’ 

Mark’s story totally consumed my thoughts. Feeling compelled to make some sense of Mark, the meaning he attributed to his life, I realised I simply could not make an interim interpretation: the data, the facts, were too thin. However, I did realise that I had had to suppress my own interests for a while, to be able to answer Mark’s unspoken call for help. 

A couple of days later, observing from a distance, it appeared Mark was wearing a clean shirt and what looked like new pants and sneakers. Was this Mark? Metres away, however, spotting the familiar shopping trolley that carried his life’s belongings, it was in fact Mark, with what appeared to be a slightly renegotiated sense of pride.

Mark was slowly devouring the sweet flavoured popcorn he had found in one of the two grocery bags he received a couple of days earlier. He seemed to be savouring the taste. 'How are you Mark?'. ‘I’m doin' ok, I know I shouldn’t be livin' like this, I am goin' to see what I can do abou' it.’ Whether Mark aimed to impress me or to validate my efforts in trying to help, one will never know. However, Mark looked a little different. There was a noticeable change in Mark's demeanour. He even half smiled. I haven’t seen Mark since; could our conversation have had an impact? I couldn’t assume so, but I had hoped so. 

I consulted my notes again and contemplated that it was by recording the little details of my everyday interpersonal experiences and the underlying vulnerabilities – mine and theirs – held within each encounter that the advice I was given several months earlier had taken on a new meaning: ‘time’ is the ‘gift.’ 

And so the facts of life come back, full circle, to the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘gift.’ For the lucky ones, it seems, time is the gift – for imagining, planning, making inroads and fulfilling life goals, alone or with others. For people like Mark, to the extent that I understand life as a homeless person gained through my interactions with them, ‘time’ can result in dreadful experiences and be anxiety provoking in all its forms: ruminating thoughts - melancholic, manic or otherwise, sourcing food or shelter, staying safe, or taking any opportunity to preserve self-dignity.

What more can we do, individually, or together, around issues of homelessness - for those who find themselves on the unlucky side of the great Corona divide?

What does ‘time’ and ‘gift’ mean for you?


About the author

T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.


Full interview: Re-posted from Institute of Managers and Leaders

Leadership Matters Magazine | December 2019 Edition.

What is the prevalence of unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion decisions?

Both conscious and unconscious biases are prevalent in standard corporate activities, including recruitment and promotion. Unconscious biases are cognitively embedded, revealing themselves in everyday interpersonal interactions, most noticeably by an external other versus oneself and, let us not forget about conscious biases as well.

Recruitment and promotion activities in the workplace are obviously areas these heuristics play out frequently. This is quite obvious when we observe and interpret why particular layers of corporate hierarchies may have similar demographics traditionally associated with those layers. For instance, consider upper echelons versus lower rungs. It is obvious to most of us by now that we have major demographic imbalances in the upper layers of corporate hierarchies. We know that certain cohorts are hired and promoted for a multitude of reasons, notwithstanding culture fit.

Hiring on the basis of culture fit is one instance in the recruitment process where biases go easily unchallenged. The circle then closes in on itself. The same demographically-suited person is hired, the opportunity for bias transcendence is lost and the process continuously repeats itself. Conscious and unconscious bias is why gender imbalances in corporate hierarchies are prevalent, not to mention the many other problematic issues associated with workplace diversity disparities across industry sectors.

Firm size: does it play a role?

The size of the firm is of course relevant, however in comparison with the prevalence of highly problematic biases across industry sectors, the latter prevails. Also, in my experience as an organisational anthropologist, smaller firms appear to do less proactive work in this area in large part due to funding and resourcing issues. However, this is not always the case. Larger firms have the additional issue of synchronising training rollout. Typically, the upper echelons undergo training first. Then training is rolled out to middle management and then frontline staff.

Continuous improvement pressures surround the average organisational member, including, but not limited to: profitability, general productivity, cost reduction demands and the recent buzzwords to enter the corporate vernacular - generating creativity and innovation. Cognition is spread across all these workplace responsibilities causing competing demands upon employees.

Unconscious bias transcendence, in many respects, has to compete with those demands because KPIs are closely associated with role expectations. Those demands, of course, consequently challenge one’s mental space for transformative introspection. In my view, additional thinking time is needed. We only have so much attention to spare at any one time and KPIs, in the short term, seem to come first.

Industry sectors have their own problems and shouldn’t be addressed with the same approach. One can’t expect to have positive change in, for instance, the finance sector when the major biases associated with that sector are poorly recognised or understood. It is pointless to use the same training in every industry sector. Therefore, there is a need to correctly observe what the organisation in that particular industry sector needs and tailor training and programs at a much finer-grained level.

One way to address unconscious biases is to first ‘read’ collective behavioural manifestations and the problems associated with the thinking behind those collective behaviours. Therefore, the collective mindset of the organisation is relevant, particularly the collection of mindsets at the top. Who is running the organisation? What are the leaders up to? Do leaders intrinsically understand the need to fix some of the bigger social and cultural issues associated with heuristics experienced in the workplace? Are they trying to cover up biases and their outcomes or adequately address them? If they are addressing them, how so? Do those approaches seem plausible? Are those approaches working? What is the motivation behind addressing those issues? Is unconscious bias training exclusively the answer when we know it doesn’t work in isolation because of the many reasons I have mentioned above.

Does using a panel mitigate against unconscious bias?

Most organisations these days tend to have at least two interviewers, if not more. Of course, it depends on who you have on the panel. If you have individuals on the panel who are demographically similar, you are going to have pertinent blind spots preventing a clearer idea of the candidate’s identity, an interpretative process that is going on in the panel’s mind at the time of hiring.

Demographically similar panels typically result in hiring outcomes that succumb to demographically similar candidates often based on superficial qualities that seem to be centred on a risk reduction approach to hiring rather than putting the additional cognitive workload in to understanding those candidates who are obviously different, that is, where the observable disparities are evident. ‘Different’ here is an important word to interpret and think about. Underneath external facades, we are all fundamentally the same. An atypical candidate, thus, offers less comfort and more risk to the panel’s decision-making processes because similarities are more obscure. In such instances, it’s necessary to look beyond people’s superficial dimensions. Much can be understood when one is truly open to the curiosity of understanding those who are unlike themselves. Common ground can be found where one least expects it. The recruitment process is a perfect place to practice this mentality and interpersonal approach to life more broadly.

Which affinity bias is most commonly problematic?

There are several common biases. However, two biases that I feel are worthy of mention are: the false consensus effect and the self-serving bias. Both are truly detrimental in routine organisational life. In the workplace, organisational members may overestimate how much others they work with agree with their own way of thinking, their beliefs, their behaviours and attitudes and their overarching values.

Colleagues in the workplace often allow those with power and privilege to think that their ideas are better than they actually are in reality, allowing those with power and privilege to save face as a means to reduce the negative consequences resulting from authentically voicing an accurate opinion. However, underneath, perhaps a different truth lays dormant. The key for all organisational members, in my opinion, is to get to the truth of collegial opinions. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves.

Giving voice to those individuals who are keenly observant but who would normally choose to avoid offering an opinion is a worthy exercise. Also, look at what is being omitted from interpersonal interactions, both verbally and behaviourally. The key to understanding others is often present in the silences and omissions within interpersonal interactions.

The self-serving bias is problematic for different reasons. Consequently, this may lead to the overvaluation of one’s own opinions, a comforting of the ego per se. In this respect, individuals may give themselves undeserving credit for organisational success. When the antithesis occurs, perhaps through individual and organisational failures, for that individual, it may feel plausible to lay the blame on others or even outside causes. The ego aims to protect itself. It is a commonly experienced heuristic and a highly problematic one.

Are there mechanical processes that mitigate against unconscious bias?

One way to mitigate biases is to become as familiar with yourself as possible. Increasing one’s conscious awareness is a life-long process. It is part of a larger set of consciousness-shaping life experiences with internal and external agents.

Socialisation and self-development are some ways of looking at the evolution of conscious awareness, yet there are probably many more. Consciousness, then, is not a stable construct but an ongoing fleeting and perhaps fragmentary aspect of individual life. Consider that if you know yourself well, you are in a better situation to read others, particularly when retrospectively recognising your unconscious behaviours towards them through introspection. As mentioned, this is experienced most often as a delayed reflective experience—a retrospective and insight-delayed process. Intrinsic self-understanding and self-knowledge enable a clearer, less ambiguous and therefore more accurate interpretation of others. This is a good defence, or perhaps, the only defence for transcending unconscious bias.

What good are mechanical processes for intrinsic transformation at both the individual and collective organisational level? I would much rather those responsible for hiring think through the interviewing process in more evolved, humanistic ways than rely on applications that are seemingly doing the work for them. Consider the hiring process as an opportunity to evolve one’s thinking by becoming more aware of others and then rectifying one’s erroneous thinking patterns. This works in conjunction with the primary responsibility, which is, in this case, to hire someone for a role.

Those who keep their attention focused on themselves and others at the same time consciously experience a great deal of what is going on around them, their thinking, how others are thinking and the overarching behavioural patterns associated with those collective thinking patterns. At this point, mechanical processes, in my humble opinion, are simply unable to handle such complex matters.

Unconscious bias training is often not effective. Here are some reasons why!

It is difficult for people to cognitively process conceptual understandings of biases and relate them back experientially in their own lives. We are asking people to understand and interpret their behavioural implications, which are a product of their unconscious mind, that is, behavioural manifestations that sit outside one’s awareness threshold. For those who are emotionally and cognitively more aware of such things, there may be small payoffs for this type of training because the introspective process occurs more readily for those types of individuals, but for those who lack higher levels of intelligence, particularly emotional intelligence, this is like asking them to introspect aspects of their own behaviour which they cognitively cannot process. In other words, it might be too difficult to go there.

Introspection may challenge one’s identity and their conceptions of self and ultimately confront how one operates in the world that surrounds them. From this perspective, if insight is generated, discomfort can be felt. People generally move away from discomfort and therefore find it hard to address their own biases because of it.

I have written an article on this particular question. Here is an excerpt:

Of all the companies I know who have taken part in unconscious bias training, not one of them is able to tell us, with absolute confidence, that it has resulted in sustainable behavioural change. In fact, I asked a question at a Diversity and Inclusion conference last year to a senior manager who was in charge of Diversity and Inclusion in a large government organisation, as she put it, ‘we don’t even know how to measure it, if it is doing anything at all.’

Most people, and rightly so, see unconscious bias training as a 'tick the box' exercise because organisations have no other concepts or ideas on how to tackle it. When I have asked leaders about becoming more insightful through the application of the key learnings taken from unconscious bias training, often there is an uncomfortable silence that follows. Not many are able to experientially communicate to me how, under what circumstances, when and where they have become ‘more conscious’ in their working lives and how the perceived reduction of collective heuristics through training has benefited the overarching organisational culture. Also, the perception that an organisation is doing something in this space seems to be important from a public image perspective which is not the right motivation for anything, be it training or otherwise.

Unconscious bias training or programs can be counter-productive if they make people feel defensive and offended. How can this be avoided?

Unconscious bias training isn’t counter-productive if it causes a reaction triggered by cognitive defences. If someone has reacted due to some or all of the content, that is exactly where one should start introspection. Dive deep into the trigger points. That reaction is a gateway towards deeper self-analysis and understanding. A reaction suggests that there is something hidden in that person’s psyche that requires transcendence. However, bias conceptualisations mostly need an application for transcendence, in other words, applying what you are learning conceptually in real-time.

What is needed for training and a follow-up program to be successful?

Ongoing mindfulness training is valuable and a worthy consideration. Mindfulness training can be carried out before, in conjunction with, and post bias training. If an organisation can afford to do both, then do both. The mindfulness state allows one to observe their thoughts and behaviour more readily, hence it is a worthwhile combination to consider. Again, any training, particularly unconscious bias training, should be tailored for the industry sector, organisational culture, levels of corporate hierarchies, specific roles and other idiosyncrasies pertinent to the specific organisation. The one size fits all approach is not effective.

At the personal and cultural level, what are effective tools to overcome unconscious bias?

The personal level is simpler to conceptualise, but hard to overcome because it requires the individual to bring to conscious awareness difficult realities about themselves. The main thing to avoid is judging oneself negatively when an insight becomes conscious. Rather, accept the cognitive bias as is and carefully look where it plays out in everyday life, then, correct it by stopping the thought pattern that leads to that repetitive thought process or behaviour. Write it down, become objectively familiar with it - then stop it.

As mentioned, you can teach people conceptualisations of biases, however, it isn’t until people connect with insight and personal feelings associated with such biases in their own lives that transcendence of those biases may occur, resulting in reduced myopic perspectives of the world, the people in it and perhaps, more importantly, conceptions of self. Mindfulness meditation, journal writing or any other introspective practice is a good idea. Moreover, documenting decisions one makes coupled with retrospective analysis concerning the outcomes of those decisions are some ideas to address biases at the individual level.

From a culture perspective, heuristic transcendence is a much more challenging issue to address. There are more variables associated with bias problems at the collective level—more people are involved in the process with different levels of insight, motivation and intellect, at different stages of their lives and careers more generally.

Cultural dynamics are complex in and of themselves. There are not only layers of culture, which should be, at the very least, loosely identified and understood, but also divergent cultural perspectives that should be taken into account. For instance, how does the leadership team view and create culture? Leadership biases will undoubtedly play out in how the leadership team aim to control or engineer culture. However, there are other cultural perspectives as well. Different departments or sub-groups, for instance, also shape culture through their biases.

Simply put, heuristics play out within all layers and levels of culture creation and moment-to-moment re-creation. It’s important to pay attention to the micro details of organisational life and interpret details of finer interpersonal exchange, those fundamental microstructures of interpersonal relations in order to better observe our biases.

About the author

T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.