Why Unconscious Bias Trainings Fail

Diversity and Inclusion

As I am walking the hallways of Corporate Europe, I often hear a buzz around Unconscious Bias Training. The more I listen to that hum, the more I realise that it is to be placed at par with any other management fad. Though good initiatives exist, oftentimes it is a staple program to “be inclusive”, rather than really wanting to alter something fundamentally in the organisation. It feels very much like a lack of change management savvy.

Unconscious bias training only works if it’s actually unconscious bias that is the problem.

When a company has a sub-optimal workplace culture then unconscious bias training is often the first in the box of tricks that managers implement to bring about change in the workplace. However, given the continued negative experiences of so many in the workplace resulting from the behaviours we see from colleagues and managers, unconscious bias training is simply a way that organisations can achieve a level of plausible deniability. All too often, “allowing” an unconscious bias training is the excuse to “have a diversity program in place”.

We can even wonder whether we really understand what unconscious bias means. Yes we can look it up in a dictionary and grasp the meaning, but really, how well do we understand what it means and – especially – how it leads to a behavioural change.

People have misunderstood the term to mean a part of their psyche they were once unaware of (and thereby not responsible for), but now have some sight of (and should be thanked or rewarded for that), put there by the more ignorant factions of their family and society (that they had no power to prevent), but certainly not a result of any personal bad intention.

Unconscious bias is the perfect storm of “it’s not my fault”, “I was powerless to prevent it”, and “people should be grateful that I’m addressing it”. This is not a recipe for action.

Some realise their bias may have an impact on their personal and professional thoughts and even their behaviour, (although that impact is debatable) but many seem to think their job is done with “awareness”.

There is mounting research, including a rather impressive meta-analysis of unconscious bias training, that there’s very little evidence that training aimed at unconscious bias as measured by the Harvard IAT for example, has a meaningful effect on outcomes.

Our findings suggest that changes in implicit measures are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit measures or behaviour.

When looking at factors that influence human behaviour, what individuals think -consciously and unconsciously – is clearly a factor. However, when attempting to change the culture and climate of an organisation and change people’s experience within it, it’s what colleagues, managers and senior leaders do everyday that is the defining factor. An unconscious bias training is not a solution in this setting. One does require a more holistic fundamental approach.

It is easy to understand why unconscious bias trainings are so sought after. Other than the “quick fix” and being able to claim “doing something with diversity”, we recognise that:

  1. It’s easy to deploy. Tens of thousands of employees can have this training delivered quickly over a couple of hours and relatively inexpensively, giving impressive statistics to add to annual reports. And, when inclusion remains absent, there is prove that the organisation has tried everything in their power to change the numbers.
  2. It’s less disruptive to individual sensibilities to gently address what people “misunderstand in their own heads” about diverse people – especially when we often implicitly suggest that these thoughts are “personally unauthorised”, somehow put there by society or by old fashioned parents – and not actually a reflection of the individual. In short the key message of such trainings is: “it’s not your fault, you can’t help it”.
  3. It avoids dealing with what is really needed: leadership. Unconscious bias doesn’t force us to look at the reality as it stands and really face the true picture of workplace exclusion and inequity. It allows leaders to look and indeed feel, like we are doing a lot while, to the relief of many, very little actually changes. It allows those who wish to slow or halt change to feel “disenfranchised” by the attention given to minorities, while never really being impacted by it.

Unconscious bias training assumes all people care to change the status quo. It ignores that there are, in most organisations, a large group of tenured but mediocre individuals for whom the status quo of reduced competition has been key to their success and stability. For them, inclusion is a threat and the bias in language and behaviour is their weapon against that threat.

Making organisations, teams or units more diverse, equitable and inclusive isn’t about being “nice”. It’s about stepping into authentic leadership. The kind of leadership that unites people behind a common cause. Is it hard? Not really. The only thing it demands is true courage. Commitment to the people’s cause. This is Cultural Transformation. It’s about knowing where we are in our development as a human being and as an organisation. And also about understanding where the organisation wants to go to and coming up with a vision that both realises the raison d’être of the organisation and the longing of the humans that bring that vision to life.

Personally, I work with Barrett’s Values Center. Their age-long experience brings the balance to address what is really needed to change cultures: a deep understanding of the underlying values.


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