Why Unconscious Bias Training Doesn’t Work (but this doesn’t mean investing less in D&I)

It was only last month when the UN celebrated International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, nearly a year since the world reacted to the death of George Floyd and only a a couple of days ago did we hear about the horror of the Daunte Wright shooting.

As with any major push in social justice, more companies are waking up and addressing racial inequality, but with that comes critics widely panning the notion of diversity training claiming to be ineffective or at worst likely to cause harm. Founder and CEO at In Diverse Company, Johanna Beresford discusses what you need to do to embed anti-racism within your company culture, without scratching upon Unconscious Bias Training.

With a number of organisations, including the government, announcing plans to scrap unconscious bias training (one of the tools frequently used in organisations’ D&I strategies), it has brought the topic under much debate.

While yes, awareness of unconscious bias is important, studies have repeatedly shown the prevalence of bias and discrimination in the workplace, evidence also shows that training alone is not effective in changing behaviour. Recent studies showed that despite 81% of companies conducting unconscious bias training1, there was diminishing confidence among leaders that it alone was enough to ensure a fair, consistent and effective process.

One of the reasons that unconscious bias training isn’t effective is firstly due to the way in which it is facilitated. Most organisations will run a two hour or at most half day workshop on the topic, and that is all. Even though through social psychology we know that there is no evidence that a person can change their behaviour after such a short session or even after a day.

So, for any kind of behaviour change training in general there needs to be a different approach. A better way is to provide smaller pieces of training or learning over longer time in order to encourage habit formation through commitments.

For learning and/or training on a topic of this nature to be successful it is far better to take place over a longer period – 3, 6, 9 even 12 months and at consistent intervals in order to introduce gradual change. By providing smaller pieces of learning in this way it allows people to truly digest, reflect and process information in a way that they understand and can implement in their day to day lives.

As well as the format, the way that unconscious bias training has been traditionally delivered is to focus on leadership or management teams. What has often been identified through this approach is that when a group of senior leaders are in a room talking on this topic it can automatically make individuals feel defensive. Particularly, if this may be one of the first occasions they have been forced into thinking about the fact that they may have biases. It’s personal. For many they will disagree that they have any bias at all, and it puts them in the frame of mind that they don’t believe anything that they are going to be told or even trust in the session. In this mindset, it is unlikely that individuals will take on board any of the learning presented to them as their brain is already telling them that they don’t believe.

Perhaps though, the most important element as to why unconscious bias training alone is not enough to drive culture change across organisations is that it is not enough for only leaders and management to go through the training. It is not enough even for the entire employee population to go through the training. Even if training programmes are delivered in a meaningful way, with no other system changes it means that the embedded processes and ways of working that make up the organisation may stand in the way of real behaviour change from taking place.

In most organisations, particularly large or growing businesses today, there is an element of bias in the systems that make up the organisation. In the recruitment processes, in the supply chain processes, in the product design etc. And so, to truly eliminate cultural bias these must be addressed too. An example we have seen recently is in the fashion sector where most of the large fashion houses undertook some form of unconscious bias training, but little evidence of change has been seen so far – a reflection that the, often complex, processes across the sector have been overlooked.

However, the message here is certainly not to scrap unconscious bias training and do nothing. Events over the past decade across business, and most specifically over the past 12 months, has shown us that prioritising and investment in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is paramount to the future of a sustainable workplace landscape, the development and retention of top talent or even just the day-to-day survival of many businesses.

So, what should businesses be thinking about when it comes to EDI or specifically addressing bias across organisations?

  • Bias CAN be eliminated or mitigated effectively when it is both built into systems and processes AND individuals and whole organisations are trained on developing inclusive behaviours
  • Training should not just be for leaders BUT leaders must be fully engaged and bought into driving behaviour change
  • Leaders need to be consciously aware of how business decisions are being made. This may mean deconstructing the way meetings are held and therefore the decision-making process in order to include diversity – not just representation but diversity of thought
  • For behaviours and cultures to be changed everyone needs to be involved – leaders, employees, stakeholders, suppliers, even customers and to re-enforce change everyone must be going through the journey at the same time. Learning, developing, growing and reflecting
  • Behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight. It is complex, which is why longer programmes of training or development work best. Simple, manageable pieces of information such as individuals committing to one individual or team habit over 6 months will support this change to happen.
Businesses foremost need to commit to making change – not just through words but through action. Training, learning and development definitely needs to be part of this, but right now what is out there is simply not good enough.

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