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Unconscious bias training: What it can and can’t do

Author: Jenna Randall Hill

Date Published: 17/04/2024

As a diversity and inclusion trainer and consultant, I’ve dedicated my career to fostering environments where everyone feels valued and respected. Central to this mission is often the concept of unconscious bias: Evolutionarily, humans are wired to use cognitive shortcuts, often resulting unintentional exclusionary behaviours. While unconscious bias training can shed light onto this phenomenon and its impacts in the workplace, like any training, it has a time and a place. Despite the ongoing backlash and criticisms surrounding its efficacy, I still believe in the transformative power of unconscious bias training and would advise companies to consider where it can be helpful on their diversity and inclusion agendas.

lenses showing unconscious bias

What is the problem with unconscious bias training?

The backlash around unconscious bias training isn’t new, and there have been numerous studies pointing to its inefficacy. However, what isn’t widely known about these insights are the conditions surrounding unconscious bias training. Like any training session on diversity and inclusion, if the training is rolled out in an environment where workplaces are already suffering from poor management and culture is toxic, deploying an EDI training initiative as a tick box exercise in an effort to give lip service to diversity and inclusion is obviously not the way forward. At best, it is money down the drain but at worst can discredit diversity and inclusion efforts and ruin trust between employees and employer. If this is the case, its advisable to skip the training altogether, and start by working with your leaders.

Another point to address is related to the expectations of a 60-90 minute training session. Criticism of the inefficacy of unconscious bias seems to infer that a 90-minute training session should solve any problems around unconscious bias in recruitment, promotions, work allocation, and generally improve workplace moral.

Although it seems unnecessary to point out that this is almost an impossible mission, I feel compelled to do so. In our fast-paced, 24/7 world where we expect and receive next day deliveries, tv on demand, quick quotes and instant messages, we could suffer from a type of bias called the illusion of validity, in our expectation that behaviour change is as instant as noodles. Workplaces should be wary of any training session that promises behaviour change after 90 minutes.

However, I have run mandatory unconscious bias training sessions in which learners reluctantly enter the room but leave exited and energised, feeling empowered as change agents in their organisation. While such an outcome could be attributed to skilled facilitation, I believe this also one indicator that unconscious bias training still has an important seat at the table.

What is often overlooked?

First of all, unconscious bias training serves as a critical tool for illuminating the hidden biases that shape our individual perceptions. An unconscious bias session should be able to showcase the biases of those present in a safe environment. Raising awareness of personal biases allows learners to self-reflect and challenge their beliefs and assumptions. This process of self-discovery is essential for improving personal accountability and fostering a sense of belonging for all. Furthermore, change agents will always have a personal stake in changing behaviours, including their own, and it is important to give space for learners to find and explore their own why.

Secondly, a well-designed unconscious bias training session should be tailored to sector and organisation so learners are positioned as subject matter experts and change agents. This allows learners to understand the wider impacts of bias in their organisation and generates a shared sense of action. In the sessions I design and run, I include real scenarios that participants can relate to, or fictional case studies that will resonate with those in the room. A skilled trainer can join the dots between individual decisions and structural inequalities, and gently usher learners from a place of guilt and overwhelm empowerment and action.

Furthermore, if sessions include a mix of people from the organisation, honest conversations from different perspectives can often point to solutions to a deep-rooted problem, or at the very least some quick wins that are easily implemented.

And for thirds, unconscious bias training should be positioned as part of a wider change project. An unconscious bias session arms learners with knowledge but must also inspire learners to take further learning into their own hands, to explore their own biases and change their own behaviour. As any behaviour change specialist will advise, wanting to change is easier than being forced to change.

To set up your employees for success, there is an ecosystem of considerations your organisation needs to tackle. In a nutshell, you’ll need to be able to create the type of environment, whereby after a series of learning sessions, the desired behaviours are role modelled and rewarded, and employees are provided a safe environment to make the expected behaviour changes.

What can we learn from this?

In sum, diversity and inclusion, change and people management is a delicate balancing act requiring knowledge and skills drawing on part science and part art. Every organisation will have a different roadmap of useful initiatives to employ, and it very well may include unconscious bias training. If you’re interested in learning more about unconscious bias training and how it can benefit your organisation, or you’d like to understand more about how we can help you find the right set of initiatives for your organisation, please get in touch.

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