Why do we demonize unconscious bias training?
Rather than demonizing unconscious bias training organisations should focus on the 8 traps they fall into
The discussion around the effectiveness of unconscious bias training is generally polarized into two extreme camps. Those that support it and those that vociferously don’t. There are very occasionally a few voices in the grey areas of nuance. Organisations tend to think they can eliminate unconscious bias. When they don’t see immediate results they get disheartened, frustrated, and even angry. They say it doesn’t “work.” But rather than demonizing unconscious bias training, they should focus on examining the various traps that they may have fallen into in their process. Shifting perceptions around creating a bias conscious and inclusive culture will make a huge difference to the way they measure success.
TRAP 1 – MAKING IT AN H.R. NOT A BUSINESS ISSUE
Committing to a bias conscious organisation should be a core corporate value where leaders and employees together identify the appropriate behaviours to practise in any workplace. This is an inclusive workplace culture. This will create a shift from notional values and assumptions, to specific expectations around behaviour. It should be part of a business initiative to drive the organisation forward and not a warm, fuzzy, box-ticking, feel-good H.R. project. This is perceived (in itself a bias) to be part of a move for political correctness and compliance.
Although building an inclusive workplace culture is the right thing to do, the business outcomes should be at the core of this initiative. They should be at the centre of the three pillars of cultural transformation: leadership commitment, systemic and behavioural change. Organisations should hold leaders accountable and reward them for getting it right. They should set KPIs and incentives, just as we would see in any other change management project.
All of this work needs to be measured and monitored on an ongoing basis whether through employee experience, reduced attrition, better retention rates and increased productivity.
TRAP 2 – MAKING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING A STAND ALONE PROJECT
If unconscious bias isn’t an H.R. issue it’s definitely not a training one. Creating a bias conscious culture is like any other transformation initiative. In any other sphere one of the most important elements of implementing a business strategy is to align behaviours, activities and priorities with the businesses’ strategic goals. This requires a “behavioural vision,” identifying habits and behaviours that are necessary for an organization to reach their objectives. These are the specific action steps that turn vision into reality to produce the desired business results. A strategy can be far-reaching, but if employees don’t live the required behaviour every day through their actions, it will not happen as it should or at all. Remember as Peter Drucker said:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
TRAP 3 – ASKING THE WRONG QUESTIONS
The frequently asked question is “Does unconscious bias training work?” Whatever the word “work” means in this context. They ask the question because it frequently encounters resistance and the results are difficult to measure. I have been involved in unconscious bias training and experienced push back personally, but I think we are asking the wrong questions.
We should be asking different questions such as:
- Who is resistant?
- Why is this resistance taking place?
- How is the resistance manifested?
- How can we get from “defensive to discovery” mode? To quote Kristen Pressner
A report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission “Unconscious Bias Training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness” suggests that:
- UBT is effective for awareness-raising by using an Implicit Association Test. This should be followed by a debrief or more advanced training designs, such as interactive workshops.
- UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it completely.
TRAP 4 – MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
Many people talk about eliminating, eradicating or overcoming unconscious bias. That already creates a false expectation. Unconscious bias training will only highlight the many areas where bias creeps in to create an environment where constructive communication around those biases can take place in a respectful setting. It can never be removed totally only managed. The correct language should be around creating awareness and managing bias. Systemic changes will put a structure in place for ensuring that we adapt our behaviour by various degrees, because employees will have to follow new protocols and reflect on and change their behaviour if necessary. These systems help us reverting to our default settings when we are tired, emotional or stressed when we are more likely to react unconsciously.
The reality is that we all make inaccurate self-assessments about our own biases. Known as the “bias blind spot” we are all able to see the biases in others, but fail to be objective about our own. In everyday language we all think we are less biased than we actually are. Every last one of us. The only thing we need to do is accept we could be potentially biased and be open to discussion on any issues.
The last thing organisations should do is imply that anyone needs fixing. We all have biases and we can’t change that only mange them.
Take a look at our Lockdown Learning Program: How to manage remote teams more inclusively
TRAP 5 – PUSH BACK IS BAD
Says who? People push back against unconscious bias training because self-reflection can be uncomfortable and change is scary. But unlike any other change management and cultural shift, for some inexplicable reason leaders and H.R. professionals tiptoe around this. Perhaps we should start looking at resistance not as a sign that unconscious bias training doesn’t “work” but because it does. Resistance should be considered as the first step in the cultural transformation project not the last. Change can be challenging and most of us prefer an easy life.
Corporate values and a mission statement lie at the heart of any organisation. Values are driven by emotions and when people bring different emotions to the workplace, relationships can become less collaborative and we may see dissent. No-one likes that. It’s therefore important to understand where and how any of these emotions can be triggered and how business decisions and relationships are impacted. Values are nuanced, subtle and difficult to identify especially when they are unconscious. Dealing with them is not straight forward which is why we avoid it.
There is also an assumption that conflict around values is inherently bad. However, dissent can make a valuable contribution to building a diverse, innovative, and strong organisation. These values define expectations around how employees relate to each other within and outside an organisation. They centre on how people need and want to be treated to feel appreciated and gain recognition. This allows them to give their top performance and achieve better results, which in turn enhances their employee experience. If employees feel their workplace culture is toxic, or their chances of promotion are limited because of their age, gender, race or any other bias, this will impact productivity. Diversity is a fact – it can be measured. Inclusion is a feeling. It’s very possible to have an inclusive organisation that is homogeneous.
TRAP 6: UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING SHOULD BE VOLUNTARY
Because people don’t like conflict, some pundits suggest unconscious bias training resources should be available to those who look for them on a voluntary basis.
Let’s take a typical change management scenario where an organisation wants to align workplace culture with its strategic vision and values to see how this could work. For example a business seeks to increase repeat sales via an improved customer service experience. A typical path to get strategic employee buy-in might include:
- Defining a positive customer service experience: the customer is satisfied and feels their needs and concerns are being fully met
- Establishing metrics that would measure a positive customer experience: improved feedback, repeat purchases, increased sales, targets and incentives
- Identifying action points that will support that process: enhanced customer service systems, more customer service agents, extended hours of availability, better interface with other services (manufacturing, supply chain, sales) provision of a better script
- Defining positive behaviours associated with those action points: improved communication skills, rapid follow-up and support, endorsing positive results
- Monitoring the success of the new behaviours: time delay, customer satisfaction survey
- Providing necessary training: to ensure that all employees understand what they need to do and are committed to meeting organisational objectives.
There is nothing there about any of it being voluntary. Can you imagine a caveat if a senior leader said “If you would like to be efficient with a customer so we can better meet their needs and become more effective, please don’t hesitate to check out these resources. Your call.” Yet the existence of bias is known to impact objective decision-making which impacts the bottom line of an organisation, in the same way as a poor customer service experience might damage sales.
TRAP 7 – CHANGE IS A LIGHT BULB MOMENT
Many expect to do a short training course and have a “Eureka” moment. I wish that was the case, but it’s more than that sadly because it’s about behavioural and mindset change. It’s like joining a gym after years of inactivity, having a session with the Personal Trainer and hoping to run 20k the following day. It’s just not going to happen. You might need to have a medical assessment, start an exercise programme, modify your diet and commit to new habits and change your mindset, as well as putting some support systems in place for when you go off track.
Unconscious bias training is exactly the same. It shouldn’t be demonized if we struggle to adapt. Our intrinsic need to feel comfortable and safe, whatever that might be, is at the root of our resistance to change and develop new habits. Until we openly examine, and discuss constructively and objectively (as we can) all aspects of this change management process and commit to a longer game, then the diversity needle will continue to stick.
TRAP 8 – NO FOLLOW-UP
Some organisations think that if they run a short one-off workshop then their job is done. No it isn’t! Cultural change is ongoing. Businesses are not static and neither is behaviour. You can’t pin it in time and it will last forever, job done. People backslide, incoming hires need onboarding and there are always new challenges. Re-booting unconscious bias training should happen frequently to keep an inclusive culture fresh and best practices top of mind.
The bottom line is that unconscious bias training would “work” if we would do the work.
Contact 3Plus to create awareness around unconscious bias in your organisation.