Why Unconscious Bias Training isn’t more effective

by | Oct 12, 2017

How to make Unconscious Bias Training more effective

Unconscious bias training is supposed to kick-start complex discussions around who we are and why we act and respond as we do. Why doesn't it always work?

I am frequently called upon to deliver unconscious bias training programs regarding the impact that bias has on effective decision-making in the workplace and the talent pipeline. There are often caveats which unpin basic conceptual misunderstandings around the topic, but they are useful,l because they also give some indication why unconscious bias training doesn’t work as well as it should.

Time commitment

A frequently asked question is “can’t you fit the training into an hour?” Unconscious bias training is supposed to kick-start complex and multi-faceted discussions around who we are and why we act and respond as we do.  Many people are not ready for that type of inner self-analysis and certainly most organizations are not comfortable with examination. They are OK with a short workshop and a superficial discussion, but it essentially can end up being a check mark on a D & I action list which will have no lasting impact. So sure, you can have a bit of an overview – but don’t call it unconscious bias training. More importantly, don't expect it to make even a ripple in corporate culture pool.

Unconscious bias training needs time and energy commitment.

Unconscious bias training

We don’t want to make it about … men

Many organizations are reluctant to dig deep into anything that touches the male middle manager. Research indicates that CEOs are willing to support D & I initiatives, but the main sticking point is at Middle Management level, as well as men at other levels. 80% of women experience sexism in the workplace with 23% reporting sexual harassment. The recent exposé of Harvey Weinstein’s harassment history is a perfect example of the “open secrets” of many organizations.

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” Gruenter and Whitaker

If the leader is the perpetrator it makes it even more difficult as we also saw in Uber and some of the other Silicon Valley scandals.

Use our Power Word List to make a stronger impact in your next presentation

Diversity and inclusion are beneficial

The Mercer Report When Women Thrive (2016) reported that 39% of middle management and 38% of male employees are engaged in company diversity and inclusion initiatives. How you see this statistic will depend on your view-point. This means that 61% of Middle Managers  and 62% of men are not engaged. These are not great numbers and go some way to explaining the uphill struggle. Many men see D & I as a zero sum activity. If women or other minorities get a bigger piece of the pie then they wonder what is left for them.

However it seems obvious that if a company does better than all employees do too.

Research from Deloitte on diversity and inclusion indicates that companies with diverse teams and gender equality are:

  • 2x more likely to meet or exceed financial targets
  • 6x more likely to be innovative
  • 6x more likely to anticipate change and respond effectively
  • 30% higher in revenue generated per employee

Unconscious bias training needs a constructive dialogue into the organisational barriers which block any gender equality or diversity initiatives. Therefore a discussion about male middle managers cannot be avoided.

The fact is we all have biases and unconscious bias conversations must include everyone. Unconscious bias training at its very core is clearly going to be inclusive.

Avoid discussions on systems and processes

Any mention in unconscious bias training of systems or "the way things are done" throws many organizations into a spin. There have been strong moves to engage men in gender equality initiatives. This means a lot of energy goes into the factual and strategic elements involved in highlighting the business case. But many organizational psychologists tell us that changing human behavior within an organization is driven by both strategic and emotional factors. Costas Markides of the London Business School, a world leader on strategy and innovation, suggests that long-term change is notoriously difficult to achieve, with only a 10% success rate, before we begin slipping into our old ways.  Jean-Francois Manzoni of IMD business school is equally cynical about our will to change. He maintains that we under-estimate our biases and frequently think we are better than we are!

So, unless new behaviors are supported by systemic changes to  processes and protocols, we tend to default to our old settings and comfort zones. At a recent session in a major organization, after defining the dominant corporate culture as Caucasian, male, highly educated, young and physically active, the group went onto a team building exercise. It was a treasure hunt race on two-wheeled, stand-up, electric scooters. They failed to see this as at all excluding, nor as the dominant culture embedding itself even further.

To quote Peter Drucker -  “culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Unless corporate culture is  guided and contained with systems, protocols and ways of holding managers accountable, unconscious bias training will continue to be ineffective.

Don't let your company rush through D & I initiatives. Take part in a Managing Unconscious Bias workshop


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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