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Don’t Give up on Teaching About Unconscious Bias

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

Originally published with From Day One in advance of a workshop I gave on diversity recruiting.

Employee education about unconscious bias seems to have fallen out of fashion lately, with questions about its worth and impact. For many organizations over the last decade or so, anti-bias training had been a foundational pillar in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As a result of increasing critiques, however, some companies have now abandoned it, while others see continue to see value in it. The debate is covered well in this BBC story.

Which way should employers go? There’s a wealth of research that unconscious bias exists, and that it can have significant detrimental impacts at work. So we shouldn’t just give up on the effort. I believe that adjusting the approach to the messaging and education in a few key areas can help keep unconscious bias education relevant and impactful.

Having delivered varying approaches to unconscious bias through training and workshops across different industries and organizations, I’ve seen where it has made a positive impact and where it can fall short. From those experiences, I’ve identified some key challenges and the opportunities to improve.

Avoiding the Backlash

I have often wished for a replacement word for bias, because I see the resistance in people’s faces as soon as it is mentioned. For most of us, bias is a word with strongly negative connotations, so it takes more than just an assertion of “don’t worry, we’re all biased” for there to be a willingness to explore our individual propensity for it. Explaining that everyone has it–that it’s essential to how our brains operate efficiently–still doesn’t overcome our innate resistance to the word and its associations.

Any successful learning and behavior change needs us to be open and committed, and anything that raises our resistance is immediately working against that goal. Telling people they’re biased creates a significant pushback, no matter how true it may be.

Opportunity: Bias as a word and concept is already out there, and many people know something about it, so it’s not practical to avoid or replace it. However, in many scenarios, what bias creates is assumptions, and this concept is less threatening for people to wrestle with, because they can extrapolate from what they’ve likely learned previously–the importance of uncovering assumptions in decisions and strategy—to uncovering assumptions when it comes to people.

Why the Ask Is Paradoxical

Our biases stem, in the simplest terms, from our brain being wired to process the masses of information we receive, by relying on broad assumptions. This is a survival mechanism because we don’t have the conscious-thought capacity to analyze every input and make a fully considered and calculated decision. But while on one hand we’re highlighting the limits of conscious-thought capacity, we’re also asking people to bring these assumptions out of their unconscious into that limited capacity. How do we do that? Can we expand conscious capacity? Do we displace existing conscious processes? Instead it’s implicitly positioned in the way many tasks are often assigned in the workplace: just add to an already-full plate and hope it works out.

Opportunity: Acknowledge that our capacity is limited and ask participants to identify one situation where they recognize their own bias can have a negative impact for others, one where they are willing to put conscious effort into their own behavior change. To go the extra mile, they could also commit to providing feedback when they see others acting from the same bias.

Too Much Threat, Too Little Reward

There is plenty of research on what motivates adults to change behaviors, and it’s pretty clear that it’s not by being scolded or threatened. While examples of the negative impacts of bias can open our eyes to what can go wrong, and perhaps build perspective or empathy, those impacts are usually fleeting and don’t lead to behavior change. What’s so often missing is getting to the positive motivation that will fuel the effort that behavior change requires. Examples and exercises can show us how we might be biased, but unconscious-bias training rarely underscores the benefits of mitigating those biases—the benefits to others, and the benefits to ourselves.

Think about one of the most oft-cited examples of unconscious bias: identical resumes submitted, but with names of varying racial or ethnic associations. In one widely noted U.S.-focused research paper, the “white-sounding names” received 50% more callbacks than those with “African-American sounding names.” That finding is shared to show that bias exists, that it has negative consequences, and to hopefully prompt a reaction of “Wow, that’s bad!” It does indeed do that for many, but without any proposed mitigation it can leave people feeling shame, disappointment, disempowerment, cynicism, or despair. In other words, helpless rather than motivated.

Opportunity: Contrast negative impacts of bias with their positive alternatives. In the resume example above, complete the emotional journey for participants by sharing examples of mitigating actions (for example, removing names from resumes) and their positive impacts (an increased qualified-candidate pool, more diverse teams). Don’t just leave the participants with what’s wrong–lead them to the benefits of getting things more right.

People Want Growth

For some reason, unconscious bias is often put in its own special place: a standalone training disconnected from everything else. That positioning, combined with some of the less effective approaches outlined above, can make it feel much more like compliance training than growth and development. At the least it should be part of broader learning on inclusion and inclusive behaviors. Better still, it should be embedded, recognized, or reinforced in programs on leadership, effective communication, career development, and growth mindset.

Whatever you choose to call it, there’s still an important place for unconscious bias in organizations: integrated as a part of a development curriculum, embedded in programs to foster inclusion, and positioned as an opportunity for individual and organizational growth and success. It shouldn’t just sit out on its own.

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