Unconscious Bias – A Duck, an Elephant, some Mice and Mrs Thatcher: Book Review of ‘The Loudest Duck’ by Laura Liswood

Published on: Mon 27 January 2014 by Admin


As a self-confessed equality geek I have been becoming increasingly more aware of discussions, conferences, training focused on unconscious bias. I was also very aware from experience and research that a systems-based approach to diversity can only take organisations so far. An expert in the field advised me to read this book to find out what all this unconscious bias stuff is about. I was not disappointed. It is incredibly easy to read, full of insight, and is not at all academic or preachy.


This book provides a refreshing new perspective on how to approach diversity in the workplace. It challenges previous ‘Noah’s Ark’ type initiatives that have focused attention too firmly on representation of men, women, disabled people etc. as the end goal. Instead it challenges every individual to try to better understand and harness their own and other’s cultural and social unconscious biases to maximize the organisational benefits of diversity, what Liswood describes as Diversity 2.0!

About The Author 

Laura Liswood is a Senior Advisor for Global Leadership and Diversity for Goldman Sachs and Secretary General of the Council of Women Leaders. In the course of the 20 years research for this book met with 15 of the world’s female presidents and prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher.

The Book
1.      Noah’s Ark

Liswood charts the history of work on diversity in the workplace as moving from initially tackling explicit discrimination by individuals to considering how organiaations overtly discriminate and how to avoid this. Thinking then moved on to an understanding that organisations and systems can also inadvertently (covertly) discriminate in the way that they recruit, appraise, promote etc. This promoted initiatives such as staff networks, committees and monitoring systems to identify barriers and address them.

All of these steps were and remain necessary but not sufficient. Evidence is mounting that the Noah’s Ark approach is not delivering the benefits hoped for. In the US there are only 13 female CEOs in the fortune 500 and 4 African Americans CEOs.

Current approaches to diversity have started to get a bad name and the book attempts to address some of the unfounded and complex myths and objections that have arisen including the idea that by addressing barriers to progress for non-dominant groups at work we are somehow defying meritocracy.

A new level of sophistication is therefore needed which is to consider how individuals unintentionally discriminate against others because of their unconscious biases. The book describes how “we all bring our unconscious beliefs about ourselves and others into the workplace. The more diverse the workplace, the more likely it is we wont have a fair and level playing field, not because of the diversity but because of how we treat those who are different from ourselves”. In fact this ‘cognitive diversity’ is the key ingredient to delivering the innovation and creativity that diversity business cases promise. Yet to harness these differences changes in perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and others in the ark are required and we all know how much we are all reluctant to change.

2.      The Elephant and The Mouse

Liswood uses a parable of an elephant and a mouse to describe the asymmetrical power relations that occur in the workplace. She argues that in every workplace there will be a dominant group – the elephant – and other non-dominant groups – the mice.

The main difference between the 2, apart from size, is power and as a result the elephant knows almost nothing about the mice whereas the mice need to know everything about the elephant and have had to learn to be vigilant, attentive and adaptable (emotionally intelligent) to survive. The elephant feels entitled to speak, knows what it wants and doesn’t pay much attention to the mice.

Ultimately to make progress business leaders need to possess the tools of both mice and elephants.

3.      Bringing Grandma to Work

In this context ‘Grandma’ is shorthand for our unconscious beliefs about the world learnt from the media, our religion, our cultures, our teachers, friends, parents, neighbours and often our grandmas. It is therefore impossible for any of us not to bring ‘Grandma’ to work, in fact she is with us in meetings, interviews, appraisals etc.

For example, Employee A may have learnt from their Grandma a belief that ‘if you cant say anything nice, don’t say anything’ whereas Employee B knows that ‘the person who complains the loudest gets the attention’. The unconscious beliefs that their manager has about this subject may well determine whether Employee A or B receives a more favorable appraisal.

Without wishing to mix metaphors or parables, it is useful to consider at this point in the story that while mice are very aware of the disadvantages they face at work, the elephant is not so aware of any advantages experienced, imagining the workplace to be a thriving meritocracy. So learning more about their own and each other’s grandmas and the impact that these have on success is essential to creating a workplace that is both fair and diverse.

4.      Navigating Difference

The differences between Grandmas can create a multitude of differences in employees’ and managers’ behaviours at work, increasingly so in a globalised workforce. Managing these differences requires much more conscious planning, awareness, interaction and evaluation than most managers realise as well as heightened emotional intelligence, observation and listening skills.

Liswood discusses the impact of these differences in unconscious belief systems under key themes;

  • Getting Noticed: The impact of Grandma on how comfortable we are in making sure that our work gets noticed by our manager, a skill which can be crucial to success.
  • Performance Management: Feedback, mentoring and stretching goals are often more forthcoming from managers towards people ‘like them’.
  • Interrupting and Apologising: Two seemingly small differences in social interactions at work which can have a lasting and significant impact on how we are perceived.
  • Mentoring: How our Unconscious Bias can impact on the mentoring relationship and ultimately the success of the process.
  • Unwritten Rules, Customs and Expectations: Which you may be lucky enough to be told or you may have to work out the hard way i.e. when you fail to observe them.
  • Subtle Inequalities: The innocent tiny decisions and actions that when added together like molehills form a mountain. Managers may inadvertently spend more time chatting over coffee with certain employees, or seat those they prefer closer to them, or even glance at their phone more frequently during conversations with others they like less. Not only do these micro-inequalities impact on the relationship between manager and employee they can overtime lead to employees feeling less valued, which lowers confidence which in turn reduces productivity creating a self-reinforcing loop.
  • Speech Patterns: Which are often ritualised e.g. ‘good morning and how are you’ type exchanges and inherited from Grandmas. A manger who has different rituals may well, without thinking, interpret an employee’s speech patterns as incorrect evaluating that person negatively as a result. Margaret Thatcher studied the differences between men and women’s speech patterns noticing that women unconsciously tend to lift their voices at the end of sentences, as if to pose a question. She made sure not to repeat this pattern choosing to match her rituals to the dominant group, which was in this case, men.

5.    Skills and Tools

The most important and possibly most difficult skill needed is to “be more conscious about our actions and decisions while changing – if not adjusting – our perspectives, beliefs and most importantly our behaviors in the workplace.” This includes understanding the assumptions we all make about others based on a much wider set of characteristics than equality legislation and traditional approaches consider e.g. height, weight, class, accent, interests etc.

Other skills and tools Liswood suggests are needed are;

– Really thinking about the people in your team

– Learning to recognize other people’s Grandmas

– Offering fair and equal opportunities to managers’ time, knowledge and feedback

– Being more careful with your words and how you interpret other people’s

– Remembering that the silent have something to say

– Focusing better on results as the determinant of success

– More thoughtfully running meetings, social gatherings, mentoring schemes, promotions, project evaluations and individual communications.

6.      Conclusion

The book’s key message can be summed up in this quote from chapter 6

“When we put different people together – which diversity inherently does – we have to go the next step, move beyond diversity, and be conscious of who we and others are. Only then can we get true value of that diversity, make the workplace fair, keep the pipelines flowing and have more effective global companies”


I would recommend this book to anyone interested in equality, diversity and inclusion especially if you have been intrigued by the recent buzz about Unconscious Bias. This book gives very practical ideas of how this exciting new subject relates to day-to-day work. I would also suggest that this book is relevant and useful to any manager keen to get the most out of their team.


So why the title The Loudest Duck… in the UK and US ‘the squeaky gate gets the grease’, in China ‘the loudest duck gets shot’ – demonstrating the importance of understanding how much our backgrounds influence the way we behave and ultimately succeed or fail at work!