Is It Time To Do Away With Unconscious Bias Training?


In US alone, the Diversity & Inclusion spend is in excess of $8 billion. You heard that right, I did say billion, and no, that wasn't a typo. Most countries are investing millions of dollars in gender diversity and unconscious bias training efforts. Also, in hiring D&I specialists to head newly formed teams, so they can level the playing field for women and minorities. There are compelling reasons of persistent inequality and systemic bias that drive these astronomical investments.

When you throw this much money at a problem, you expect to see the situation turn around. It better, you'd say. Yet, the results after a decade of focus by major global corporations on D&I efforts are not as remarkable as one would hope to see.

Do we have no good news at all? We do, in fact. For example, the latest Gender Diversity Progress Report released on International Women's Day 2017 confirms that the AICD's target of 30% women on ASX 200 boards is on track to be met by the end of 2018. I could quote more examples. The thing is, they are far fewer than you might expect given the resources and industry weight behind D&I efforts over the years.

The world of business has a propensity to look for a quick and doable solution to prickly issues. In this case, unconscious bias training is one of the most popular options to address bias, stereotyping and prejudice inside organisations that stall diversity efforts.

The billion dollar question - does unconscious bias training help reduce bias within teams and organisational cultures?

There’s certainly been an “explosion” in the need for awareness about unconscious bias, says Diversity Council Australia CEO, Lisa Annese. Organisations, looking to improve diversity know that there’s no simple solution and that tackling unconscious bias is one tool of many that can help, she says. “You’ve got to then take a broader approach in diversity, because people need to have a reason to change. Just understanding your unconscious biases and how they play out isn’t enough."

So, where are we at with efforts to reduce bias at work?

*In one of the most comprehensive studies, researchers looked at more than three decades of data on diversity initiatives at hundreds of companies across the U.S. to determine their impact.

Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin, one of the researchers who spearheaded that study, shared the outcomes. To their surprise, the researchers found that it was hard to say, if after three decades of D&I programs, there was any measurable change, one way or another.

The researchers found a clear pattern in the data, one of them was to do with programs that target managerial stereotyping through education and feedback (diversity training and diversity evaluations). These were not followed by increases in diversity.(*source: Fast Company. Frank Dobbin, 'Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies')

Tinna C. Nielsen & Lisa Kepinski (Inclusion & Diversity Specialists) write a fabulous critique based on years of experience of having seen numerous designs and content of debiasing initiatives and programs. One of the telling parts of this article says, "Typically an organisation's request is like this: “We would like to have a 1 to 3 hour session that is entertaining, eye-opening, convincing, based on science but not with scientific content, and that does not put the leaders and employees on the spot — they just need to be more aware of bias.” "The other tendency is a fatigue around unconscious bias awareness (similar to the tendency of gender fatigue found in many organisations). Say the words “unconscious bias” and many people now roll their eyes."

So how are we doing with unconscious bias training? It appears as if we are stuck in the middle of entertaining, not so scientific, programs and ones that do have a lot of evidence and leave employees little chance to escape, entertaining or not. Most take a deep breath as they are sent in for mandatory training by many large organisations. Giants of tech, accounting and retail have mandatory debiasing programs. Even if you have a smart name for them, at the end of the day the message is clear - you are biased and you need to fix this.

A few things have gone wrong with unconscious bias training. I am listing the key ones that are research based outcomes, and a few that I intuitively feel would make most employees disengage.

#1 Mandatory training

If you've done psychology 101 as part of any stream of education you were in, you'd know this - human beings don't respond well to control or coercion. First, it makes people anxious that they are being fixed because they are broken and that they can no longer be themselves. In fact, they will likely be judged harshly for having attended a training and still found transgressing. Second, and this is a more dangerous kind of damage - that of reinforcing feelings of privilege, resentment and revengefulness towards those who seem to have foisted such trainings upon us - women and minorities. Enough has been said about the infamous 10 page Google diversity manifesto, so I won't go into that, but it seems eerily close to the kind of counterproductive outcome researchers have been warning us about.

#2 Focus on managers

The moment we single out a demographic within an organisation, we are saying, you have something to do with where we are and how this needs to change. Now if you've spent millions to train all 3000 managers in your organisation, you'd want to see results and fast. When the message of debiasing is not carefully crafted in an inclusive and shared environment, it can quickly generate feelings of hostility and resentment. Managers might mistake attention on them as being blamed for not upholding D&I expectations, that somehow, a biased culture is their fault. They are the bad people. When people feel they are being blamed, they have an expected reaction, they become defensive. That's not the bedrock for positive post training outcomes. Most such trainings lack consistent data that behaviour changes continued long after the training.

#3 Naming it unconscious bias or bias awareness training

Tinna C. Nielsen & Lisa Kepinski share that there is a risk in naming a training as such because it's going to trigger connotations/associations in the unconscious mind that activates counterproductive feelings, like, ‘I am going to be fixed’ (anxiety) or ‘I’ll lose privilege, status, and power.’ (loss-aversion bias) or 'Now I’ll get them and show them how wrong they are.’ (revenge). Framing the effort to reduce or mitigate bias is important. It's still uncommon to find unconscious bias training as an embedded part of leadership programs or performance development training programs. The meaning we attach to words changes how we feel about the overall effort. Even if researchers hadn't told us this, you might agree, this is communication basics, and we've known it all along.

#4 The training is done out of context

Another important piece of research is that when you craft training content that is disconnected with actual work scenarios, it misses the mark. We knew this, too.Very often, unconscious bias training is outsourced by D&I teams. Most programs begin with one of these two popular slides - we are bombarded by millions of bits of data, so we use heuristics or short cuts to make sense of our world, in a nutshell, we use bias to function. The other is about legal obligations and negative motivators, and how being biased can get companies sued. I'd be scared for sure, but might not go out feeling collaborative. Realistically speaking, not all consultants might be willing to build customised content for each client, and even if they did, the organisation might be unwilling to foot the bill. Debiasing efforts are more likely to show positive outcomes when they emerge from within the organisation and are full of context and language that is already familiar to employees.

#5 'High prevalence of unconscious bias' approach

Human beings are curious creatures, so when you tell them that there is high prevalence of a behaviour, in the hope that they will reduce that behaviour, they do the opposite. There is evidence to prove that our brains tend to repeat behaviours that we see as already prevalent. We want to be part of the majority, not the minority. We reason, if so many people are already doing something, it wouldn't hurt if I did just a little bit of it, too. We want to do what everyone else is doing, not what very few are doing. Most unconscious bias trainings emphasise how bias is all pervasive, that we are all biased and that we need to watch for it and reduce it. Guess what, we don't. Most employees go out of the program with an unconscious message to repeat biased behaviours instead of reducing them. Good intentions gone awry, you could say.

#6 We are all responsible, so no one is accountable

The term unconscious is a tricky one. It signifies behaviours we are not conscious of, and hence, can't possibly be aware of or held responsible for. In essence, I am a passive actor in being biased. How do you catch bias when you don't even know you are biased and what about exactly? So, the easy way out is to relinquish personal responsibility and not do anything about it. I find it really risky to unwittingly suggest to a bunch of employees that they didn't do anything that was prejudiced or even bigoted, in fact, they aren't even in control. Forces out of their control made them behave in ways that were unfair to others and put them down. You can see how this is not going down a good path. Debiasing efforts need to strike a delicate balance between why we aren't bad people for being biased, but that we are responsible to behave in a fair and respectful manner. Tough one, I say.

#7 Too much focus on people, too little on processes

Even if D&I teams have the best intentions to help reduce bias within their workforce, they can't avoid the hard part of recognising that the organisation has systemic issues. Bias does not flourish for no reason and without support. Crucial processes such as performance reviews, monetary rewards, promotions, task force selections, overseas assignments and recruitment have evolved over time to reflect the sum total of its workforce and leadership beliefs. To assume that all of these processes are fair and square because well laid out policies say so, is being naive. Debiasing is very tough, if not impossible, to accomplish without focusing on changing processes that in subtle, and not so subtle ways, push back on those who are underrepresented. If we are to change behaviour, we might as well start with the processes.

I intend to write more on unconscious bias training, especially, what can be done to make it a more fruitful effort perhaps. For now, hopefully, this is thought-provoking. I am looking forward to hearing how your experience has been, do add to the conversation if you find the time.

#unconsciousbias #bias #inclusion #diversity #InclusiveLeadership

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