Why Unconscious Bias Training Is Not For Everyone

Not everybody is at the same level when it comes to DEI, so using unconscious bias training as a catch-all, tick the box solution for diversity posturing without putting the work into creating a culture of inclusion can do more harm than good. In this article we discuss why unconscious bias training is not for everyone.

Unconscious bias training typically focuses on creating awareness of what it means, explaining some of the impacts, taking the Implicit Association Test to become aware of personal bias, and perhaps being sent back to work with advice on what to avoid doing.

However, this approach rarely defuses, and can even amplify, the impacts of unconscious bias in the workplace.

What is Unconscious Bias? 

Unconscious bias consists of the attitudes, preferences, generalizations, and beliefs towards others that, by definition, we operate by, but aren’t even aware we hold. 

With our brains encountering as many as 11 million bits of data per second, we rely on data reducing and simplifying mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that comprise our fast and automatic thought processes. But these mental shortcuts, involved in perception, problem-solving and decision-making, are highly subject to invisible biases influenced by our socially inherited worldview. 

There are many forms of unconscious biases that affect outcomes. In a study of sending out (fake) CVs for positions in the UK, applicants with Pakistani or Nigerian names had to send out 60% more applications just to receive the same amount of callbacks as applicants with stereotypical British names. 

No matter how we believe we are, or intend to be, unconscious bias is at play for everyone, and hinders our ability to perceive, assess, evaluate and make decisions equitably. Even the designers that create implicit bias tests - including Mahzarin Banaji who considers the mind to be a “difference-seeking machine” - observe their own bias when they themselves take the tests.

What is the Problem with Generic Unconscious Bias Training?

Conventional unconscious bias training has proven repeatedly to be ineffective and can do more harm than good. Yet many organizations turn to this training as a catch-all, tick the box solution for diversity posturing without putting the work into creating a culture of inclusion.

Hundreds of studies have suggested that unconscious bias training alone does not reduce bias, create long-lasting behavior change, or positively affect behavior in the workplaces nor outcomes for underrepresented groups. Training is usually provided as a one-off session, but short-term educational interventions have been proven unlikely to make a difference in habits or behavior. A meta-analysis of 490 studies from 2019 showed unconscious bias training consistently failed to change biased behavior

Also, unconscious bias training has, ironically, been known to backfire - as it can make biases feel unavoidable, increase the prevalence of stereotypical thoughts, and allow participants to condone them and abdicate responsibility. Pamela Fuller, co-author of The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams, argues that unconscious bias training unintentionally makes people feel comfortable about the biases they have, and needs to be reframed to follow the connection to impacts. 

Often organizations are simply motivated by appearing responsible and avoiding litigation, rather than by a genuine mission to create diversity, equity and inclusion. When training is framed as motivated by external reasons, such as legal requirements, employees feel they are being coerced and controlled. Also, white men often feel their positions threatened by pro-diversity messages, bringing up anger and frustration that creates more resistance. 

Further, research has shown that changes in unconscious bias do not lead to changes in discrimination, as the latter may result from mental and behavioral habits and organizational practices that are rooted in more factors - put simply, unconscious bias training is not enough

In fact, 87% of participants in a survey, shared in Harvard Business Review by Gina and Coffman, indicated that the unconscious bias training they received did not go past explaining the science behind bias and the costs of discrimination, and only 10% said the training included strategies for reducing bias.

When is DEI Training on Unconscious Bias Actually Effective? 

Gina and Coffman wrote: “The idea that we can reduce our bias simply by being aware of it is the fatal flaw in most UB training. In fact, most programs end exactly where they should start.”

Conventional unconscious bias training - awareness focused, catch-all and one-off sessions, perhaps with “not to do’s" — is a poor use of resources. But organizations who take a more robust, comprehensive and long-term approach, that translates awareness into positive action, can have real and lasting results, such as increased feelings of inclusion, less bias and prejudice and greater commitment to organizational change.

The most effective unconscious bias training offers skill-building to empowers participants as more conscious decision makers, and does things such as: 

Create Interactions. The most productive sessions that confront bias often involve interaction between people of different groups, which creates connection and social accountability. The more managers are exposed to diversity and encouraged to account for hiring and promotion decisions, the more likely they are to address issues of bias

Switch Up Perspectives. Perspective-taking” exercises, in which participants write about the challenges faced by someone in an underrepresented group, can build empathy and help bring lasting changes to attitudes and behavioral intentions. This can also include searching for real life examples that disrupt stereotypes and help to build new mental scripts and narratives. 

Emphasize Growth Mindset. Gina and Coffman share that learning about the malleability of the brain and how it’s capable of positive change is the most effective component of anti-bias training, and keeps bias from being seen as unavoidable or acceptable. Growth mindset is an important criteria for anyone aspiring to leadership to embrace here, too. 

Reflect On Behavior. Reflecting on past behavior to consider where bias was at play, examining assumptions, and learning to reframe judgements as they come into awareness (could this be an asset?) are all powerful. This helps participants to connect the dots between biases they hold, impact on their behavior and decisions, and impact on others. Trainings are more impactful when people connect their behavior to the disadvantages and discrimination other groups face. 

Consider Self-Limiting Beliefs: Fuller notes that engaging in self-reflection around limiting beliefs people have about themselves is also important, relative to awakening the awareness of how we project into the world from unconscious beliefs and how that shapes our perception and experience. Enhanced self-awareness is conducive to emotional intelligence and promoting inclusion. 

Set Behavioral Goals: Creating positive, active intentions around future behaviors can help to impact real changes in the workplace, such as mentoring and using micro-affirmations. This helps to foster new attitudes and approaches and breaks out of focusing only on aversion to bad behavior approaches, instead emphasizing self-enhancement as a leader and what is possible to impact, consciously.

Why Not Everyone Is Prepared For Unconscious Bias Training

Effective unconscious bias training supports trainees to observe their bias, connect with others, embrace inclusion as a personal mission, counteract their stereotypes, rewrite mental scripts, and use tools to change behavior and track sustained progress - but not everyone is ready to do the work we’ve outlined above. So the first two steps are:

Identify The Issues More Clearly. As opposed to catch-all generic training, one of the advantages of DEI data is that it can point to issue areas in your organization, helping to diagnose root causes of inequity and identify where positive training interventions are most needed and likely to be effective, as well as what those interventions are. 

Understand Your People More Clearly. Not everybody is at the same level when it comes to DEI, and the openness and receptivity to self-evolve as a leader. Pulsely helps companies identify where each employee stands so that organizational training programs can be individualized, better received and more effective.

With a targeted approach, we evolve unconscious bias training to move towards more conscious impact on your corporate culture. 

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