Use inclusion to make your firm stronger

Expert Steve Robbins addresses the importance of acceptance.
By Cheryl Meyer

Throughout the years there's been a lot of emphasis on the importance of embracing diversity within firms. But before organizations or individuals tackle this challenge, they need to look more closely at inclusion — making people feel part of a valued team while minimizing an environment of insiders and outsiders.

That was the message conveyed by Steve Robbins, Ph.D., in his webcast titled, "Your Brain is Good at Inclusion… Except When it's Not," aired Feb. 21 by the AICPA. Robbins specializes in communication, diversity, and inclusion and offers inspirational speaking and training to companies like Microsoft and Walmart. He is also head of S.L. Robbins & Associates, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based consulting firm focused on human behavior.

His premise is this: It's important to build inclusive cultures because people are "hard-wired to belong," and because the human brain performs better when a person feels valued. Without inclusive cultures, discord can occur and fester. People in general are closed-minded, and their brains often take shortcuts, especially when they are tired and stressed, Robbins said. Closed-minded people "tend not to be open to new ideas and experiences. They like the status quo and prefer staying in their physical and mental comfort zones," he added. And closed-minded individuals can often hold unconscious bias toward others, which can affect collaboration, communication, even hiring decisions — and foster a culture of exclusion.

Robbins offered this example during his webcast: Your firm has an open position for an accountant. Candidate A walks through the door, and the first thing you notice is this candidate looks like you, talks like you, and dresses like you. Then Candidate B walks through the door, and you immediately notice the person's nose and tongue piercings, and a large neck tattoo. "Research suggests Candidate A gets selected 80% of the time," he said in his talk.

Robbins calls this unconscious bias and self-talk "noise" — unwitting prejudices that prompt decisions, good or bad. It includes things like skin color, attractiveness, sexual orientation, gender, class, or education. "Noise can hide talent and lack of talent," he noted.

He also addressed the concept of insiders versus outsiders. Professionals may give insiders the benefit of the doubt while forcing outsiders to prove themselves, and their brains often decide too quickly who is in or out. "Sometimes there is a bias that we didn't recognize and we need to address it," he said.

So how can organizations and CPAs handle unconscious biases to help develop a more creative, productive, innovative, and inclusive atmosphere? Robbins offered the following tips:

  • Identify your noise. Determine the noise that is affecting you or your organization. Do your firm's leaders have unconscious biases that influence hiring decisions, and is this noise hurting or helping? "Take a critical analysis and recognize this," Robbins said. "When you have a bunch of individuals who have similar noise, it becomes organizational noise." In addition, if your clients won't work with a tattooed CPA, your firm's leadership needs to determine its own value system. "Do you sacrifice a client because their values go against your own values?" he asked.
  • Practice mindfulness. Take a break, breathe, meditate, and do this regularly. Be aware of your internal state, pause to consider options and outcomes for your actions, and mindfully choose measures that can help you and your organization, Robbins advised. Those who practice mindfulness are "less reactive and more thoughtful in their decision-making," he said.
  • Step out of the box. Don't mingle only with people like you. "Spend time out of your cognitive and physical comfort zones to get to know people from different cultures," Robbins said. "Push yourself out of your own comfort zones and expand your knowledge." By doing this, you can become more open-minded and understanding of diverse viewpoints — and create feelings of inclusion.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, JofA senior manager of newsletters, at

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