Leadership for Inclusion and Innovation in Healthcare: A Framework for Combatting Unconscious Biases, Jim Austin and John Park

Recently we posted a story on the Brown School of Professional Studies’ commitment to cultivating business leadership based on innovation and inclusion. We were reminded of the critical need for this type of leadership in today’s business world by Susan Fowler’s story about the sexual harassment she experienced at Uber and the shocking response by the company’s human resources department.

In the following, EMHL faculty members Jim Austin and John Park explain how in their co-taught EMHL course, Management and Marketing, they prepare leadership to seek a broad range of perspectives, respectful points of view, and how this approach leads to breakthrough thinking.

From Jim Austin, President, JH Austin Associates, Inc. and a former Senior Executive at Baxter Healthcare:

In the EMHL Management & Marketing module, we outline a framework for leadership that encompasses three critical elements to broaden perspectives and cultivate leadership based on inclusion. First, we examine perception which embodies biases. We critically analyze what we perceive, by asking:

  • How do we understand the problem? How do our assumptions shape this understanding?
  • Where do we get information? Do our sources challenge or confirm our biases?
  • How did we come to a conclusion? Did group-think crowd out other perspectives?
  • Do our choices accommodate changing circumstances? Are attribution biases narrowing our understanding of future opportunities and the need to update our choices?

The insidious nature of these biases is they are typically sub-conscious; in fact, Daniel Kahneman, whose work from Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) we examine in this module, argues we can not do much about these processes; rather, we need to set up frameworks to offset the ways we are “predictably irrational” (Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 2008).

The historical, and ethical nature of sexism and racism differentiate them from the decision errors Kahneman’s work focused on. But the “snap” judgments, the subconscious nature of such responses, and the unwillingness of groups to confront such issues are rooted in the problems Kahneman and others outlined.

Secondly, we look at how we formulate options. What is sad about the Uber situation is how quickly it became difficult for all involved to see options or to deal differently with the issues. Leadership is about establishing direction, values–what is acceptable and what is not. But, it is also about listening…bringing forth from the team different perspectives, different options for moving forward.

Third, based on Ram Charan’s work, we examine the importance of establishing trust which was clearly destroyed at Uber. Leaders are leaders because they are trusted based on their expertise, reliability and the emotional connections they make throughout an organization. All aspects of trust seem to have frayed at Uber. Terribly sad.

To transform healthcare, we can’t afford predictable irrationality. We need leadership capable of building inclusive work cultures that invite diverse perspectives and fully deliberate options.

From John Park, Vice President Marketing/R&D, North America, PDC Healthcare (A Brady Business):

One of the key principles in marketing is segmentation where you have to understand your customer groups deeply; what are their needs and how can you uniquely address them? Woven into the frameworks, that Jim sheds light on above, are case studies that help foster an empathetic understanding.

For example, in a previous class, we looked at a marketing case study that focuses on creating awareness about heart disease in women. It inspired one of the students, a male cardiovascular surgeon, to take the initiative to reach out to two female cardiologists to get their insights in this area. He commented online, “both female cardiologists said that it was frequently a daughter, sometimes a son who pushes the mother to seek medical attention for some atypical symptoms which turn out to be indicative of coronary artery disease.”

What we love about this is how in a traditionally chauvinistic discipline in medicine, there is the humility to walk in someone else’s shoes. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is a business need to understand your opportunities and blind spots. As a leader, you need to engender as many eyes and ears in your organization to do that.

I think it’s also important to point out that we have a ‘code of respectful communication’ in the EMHL program where each course supports having impactful, but respectful dialogue. Clearly, that is lacking in the example brought forth from Uber.

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