Unconscious bias in the workplace: is training the solution?
The concept of bias is undisputed and work in psychology, behavioural economics and cognitive neuroscience continue to emphasise the various biases that impact our decision making. One such bias that has become mainstream in organisations is ‘Unconscious Bias’ (implicit bias) and, as an intervention, organisations provide their employees with unconscious bias training.
As a business psychologist and organisational change consultant I consistently question the merit of how unconscious bias is presented and implemented currently in organisations. Simply because the concept of bias stems from scientific evidence does not mean that it is easy to erase or correct biases in we complex human beings (more about this later).
Let me begin by defining what unconscious bias is: it refers to a bias that happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
Unconscious bias as it relates to diversity and inclusion is reflected in our prejudices and stereotypes that are deeply seated within us as a result of our socialisation. However, the term has become somewhat muddied and, in some instances, has become a way of excusing abominable behaviour such as outright racism as well as, authenticating the more subtle form of microinequities (microinequities are subtle, ambiguous, brief and everyday verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities that communicate negative insults to people of difference and is deemed more pervasive and psychologically damaging due to its subtle nature).
In a typical unconscious bias training programme people take tests that ascertain where their biases lie and the rationale is that once we are aware of our biases we can reflect upon, and reshape our thinking to act differently. That is, we are better placed to censor and change our actions.
I believe that simply training people to understand what their biases are is a waste of time. My take is that exposing bias does not make it evaporate. Exposure may help you to gain insight and reflect on these insights but exposure and reflection is not guaranteed to change your behaviour.
Controversially, I believe that it suits many to hover under the umbrella of unconscious bias as a way of legitimising their prejudices. If we were 100% honest, we know what our prejudices are and without having to be made aware of them via a test. Research has also provided evidence that in some cases, unconscious bias training has increased defensiveness, reinforced stereotypes, contributed to stonewalling, which ultimately are all expressed through anger, frustration, and, resentment.
I believe that there are three main actions that organisations need to take so as to reduce, actions arising from unconscious bias. These actions are in the arenas of leadership, culture and engagement.
Beginning with leadership, there continues to be disparity between the progress that people in power claim they want to enact in the area of diversity and what they actually end up doing. We need to interrogate the notion of power. Underlying power is the emotion of fear. Fear of losing status, fear of losing rewards, fear of the unknown; fear of undermining credibility, fear of our own ignorance and, fear of how people with different opinions will change the ways we do things around here.
Further, dominant groups in an organisation in relation to gender, race, nationality, physical ability etc. as well as, dominant ways of working, are all motivated to maintain the status quo. Dominance amounts to power. Why would you want to give your power away or even share some of it?
Fear and dominance are at the heart of keeping things the same. So as to address this we need to be courageous enough to delve into the root of emotions. Once we know where the emotions stem from then we can begin to plant the seeds for new behaviours. Therefore two actions that leaders can take to address unconscious bias are to identify, make explicit and role model the behaviours that they expect others to demonstrate and practice. When these behaviours are breached, consequences must be administered so that those responsible are sanctioned appropriately.
Further, rather than the organisation implementing a host of bolted-on/one-off initiatives, leaders to integrate the diversity strategy into the organisational strategy; Leaders need to steer and position the anchor in the right direction by investing and providing adequate resources to directly deal with, and root out, bad practices.
This leads us onto the second arena – that of culture. Organisational concepts that relate to unconscious bias such as ‘fit’ and ‘values’ make up a part of the equation that is organisational culture. Many organisations persist in employing people who are a ‘good fit’ with the culture. This is akin to saying ‘we like people who are like us’. Adopting a rigorous systemic approach to enabling people who are different to be included in your organisations culture will enable organisational structures, systems and processes to adapt to difference whilst facilitating the demise of unconscious bias and fostering innovation. The organisational culture needs to show how diversity is an advantage to its long-term health in relation to attracting talent and realizing growth.
Additionally, when differences collide, the organisations should have processes in place that enables constructive conflict to be explored without emotion rather than to sweep conflict under the table.
This leads us unto the third area that will help to reduce unconscious bias: that of employee engagement. Connecting to, and collaborating with others so that robust conversations can be had and radical honesty can be practiced will enhance transparency. Further, organisational structures should be agile enough so that across all levels, employees can be encouraged to be involved in high profile projects so that the success of the organisation is determined by all rather than a select few.
Rolling out training programmes for unconscious bias is not sustainable as it does not address the root causes of bias. Organisations need to move from training to practical actions by embracing a holistic approach to dealing with bias. Unconscious bias takes into account our identity as well as our different ways of thinking and different ways of behaving in different contexts. Let us embrace and leverage all that is good about difference through pragmatic means.
There is no short-term fix, for rooting out unconscious bias. Organisations have to invest in behavioural interventions and be prepared to be in it for the long haul.