It’s a phrase that the employees at the diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm Just Work say often, and hear even more.
“It’s not a red flag,” Just Work co-founder Kim Scott explained at the Charter workplace summit last week, but the red flag’s less daunting, equally attention-grabbing cousin. At the company that Scott co-founded with Trier Bryant, “purple flag” is the code word to identify bias as it appears in meetings and conversations. It’s a strategy that is designed to spark conversation and reflection, and normalize the idea that we all have biases that need further interrogation.
In a panel at the summit moderated by Time executive editor John Simons, Bryant, the CEO of Just Work, and Scott, the author of Just Work and Radical Candor, laid out the three-step framework they’ve developed to help teams address bias. It’s a process that focuses on inviting conversation in shared work, rather than accusing or attacking. In the Just Work model, bias is defined as something unconscious, and the person who is expressing a bias is understood to be reflecting back something they’ve been socialized to accept without examination, without intending any harm.
No matter how blameless the intent, though, disrupting bias can be awkward and carry a heavy emotional burden. “We find ourselves defaulting to silence because we don’t know what to say, and we don’t know what to do,” said Bryant. The framework she and Scott have built makes being an “upstander,”—as opposed to a bystander—a normal and expected part of the workplace. Here’s their three-step process:
Create a shared vocabulary
The goal is to be able to acknowledge bias as it appears in real time, but without doing so in a way that derails the conversation or meeting. To do this, teams need to have a signal—like the Just Work purple flag.
Playful works here. Scott mentioned one cat-loving organization she had coached in which team members meowed at each other when bias arose; another team used, “Yo” as their code word. A more formal way to address bias could be to say “I don’t think you meant what that sounds like,” emphasizing the idea that bias is often unconscious, and in this framework, always unintentional.
Or, if most team conversations take place on video or in Slack, an emoji in the chat could be enough. Whatever feels right for your team, just make sure the meaning of your signal is universally understood.
Set a shared norm
What happens once bias has been identified is just as important as identifying it in the first place. If you’ve been flagged (or meowed at, or yo’d), “the first thing we recommend is to say, ‘Thank you,’ regardless of if you understand it or not,” said Bryant, “because it takes courage to call someone in on that bias.”
The second piece is to communicate where your head is. If the bias in your statement is clear to you, you can say something like, “Yes, I understand and I’m working on it.” Or, if you don’t understand or you want more information, say, “I’m not sure what you’re calling me in on; can we discuss now or after the meeting?” That way there’s an opportunity for broader education, if time allows, or a chance to continue the conversation later if it doesn’t.
Agree to a shared commitment
It’s not easy to accept that we cause harm when we don’t mean to. That’s why it’s important to make sure that bias is being recognized and addressed in every meeting, Bryant and Scott explained. “It’s really useful to have that norm to fall back on, and also to reassure me that I’m not the only person who’s making these mistakes,” said Scott. “We’re all making these mistakes and we’re all learning together.”