The newest challenge in Unconscious Bias Training
28th October 2020
“We tried unconscious bias training, and it worked for a while but we need a follow-up”
“Unconscious bias training certainly made colleagues more aware of the big “no-no’s” in the office, but what about repeated passive-aggressive behaviour? It’s difficult to find the line between what others find undermining and what can be construed as a micro-aggression.”
In conversations with our clients, these comments (and others like them), were reported by some learners undertaking our older (but still very popular) Unconscious bias training. Which got us thinking… What are these more subtle yet negative behaviours in the office? What are their impacts? And, what strategies are the most effective in preventing the loss of morale, creativity and lack of collaboration that results when these micro-behaviours are allowed to run unchecked?
Nobody can dispute the damaging impact unconscious biases can have on our decision making. However, it raises the question of what is it that limits the effectiveness of unconscious bias training in the long run, particularly when it comes to how we interact with others? A deeper look at the problem made it clear that although traditional training makes us aware of our natural tendency to stereotype others, we don’t necessarily consider our more subtle interactions and preferences to be a result of cognitive biases, especially if they positively impact others (like informal mentoring or praise). It is a fact that even positive behaviours (or micro-affirmations) can have negative consequences if it means that someone else is inadvertently disadvantaged. That’s why the future of such training in 2020 must consider the impacts of these subtle consequences of unconscious bias…. micro-inequities.
Before we go much further though, let’s remind ourselves what we mean by unconscious bias.
What is unconscious bias?
In simple terms, unconscious bias refers to the biases that we have towards others that are not in our conscious control. When we meet people, we make instant assessments of them, normally based on our own experiences, and cultural environment and background. Most of us like to believe that we’re open-minded and objective, however, in reality, many of our opinions, values and beliefs stem from our families, our culture, and a lifetime of experiences which all combine to heavily influence how we view and judge other people and ourselves.
These biases that we have all built up over time help us to process information quickly and efficiently, which, from a survival standpoint, can actually equate to a positive and necessary trait – after all it’s something natural which we have, without purposeful intervention and little control. However, as we all now know in 2020, bias can in fact have severely negative impacts on people and indeed in business if we lose our objectiveness and ultimately make unfounded judgements which lead to missed opportunities.
Impacts in the workplace
In the workplace, unconscious biases can mean that we sometimes treat a specific group or individual based on a set of assumptions that we perhaps don’t fully appreciate that we hold. However this is not behaviour which could be described as rational, and only by recognising these biases within ourselves can we start to tackle and ultimately remove them.
And remove them we must try to do, for the effects of bias, however subtle, can actually be quite devastating to a business and its community. If we don’t show each and every member of a team an equal amount of worth and acceptance, over time, this failure to interact with everybody fairly can impact an organisation quite negatively: staff can begin to feel alienated and demotivated; we miss out on the opinions and experience of diverse voice, silencing new ideas and creativity; we can suffer reputational damage; as well as a whole host of problems that can begin to unfold. It’s therefore vital that something is done to ensure your decision-makers with the company are not subject to their unconscious biases.
So does unconscious bias training work?
Unconscious bias training can work very well if it has impact, relevance and is given the chance to really resonate with your learners. It has been around for quite a while now, and learners have become, if not immune, then at least over-familiar with the terminologies and advice learned from their previous encounters with similar training. This can lead to people falling back into old habits and ways of thinking once the initial impact has worn off. It also means that any subsequent unconscious bias courses have less of an opportunity to affect learner behaviour. So what do we do about it?
Beyond Unconscious Bias training – the next level
Recent studies have shown that unconscious bias can manifest in several different ways, but the most prevalent and insidious of all is through micro-inequities.
For those who may not be familiar with the term, micro-inequities are those tiny behaviours (gestures, tone, and actions) or use of language (words) that can make others feel excluded and not treated as fairly as others.
Examples can range from actions like greeting one person more warmly than others or interrupting a colleague in mid-sentence, to taking credit for someone else’s work and repeatedly cancelling meetings with a colleague. These are just a few examples of the types of negative behaviours that cumulatively build-up to create a workplace environment that feels friendly to some but pervasively hostile to others.
The challenge for us as Inclusion and Diversity specialists is to ensure that organisations are able to recognise when these subtle behaviours can manifest in the workplace, and deliver effective strategies to mitigate their effects and take our unconscious bias training to the next level.
When it comes to demonstrating the impacts of micro-inequities upon an organisation there really is only one way to effectively deliver this training and that is by showing not telling. To really experience what it is like to witness micro-inequities and see their impact, we developed an immersive training package that places the learner into a series of branching videos where their decisions play out in real-time on the screen.
The dramas themselves follow the story of a team of professionals working together to build a new website. As the personalities clash and deadlines loom, you will be asked to select from a range of options how the team leader should respond to correct team members’ (and her own) interactions and biases. The success or failure of the project will depend upon whether the learner effectively integrated these lessons and chooses the correct responses.
Learners will be able to actively participate, putting their knowledge of unconscious bias and micro-inequities to the test in a challenging simulation that is both thought-provoking and convincing. By the end of the module learners will be able to:
- Realise bias is instinctive and immediate
- Appreciate that bias can have a cumulative impact
- Acknowledge that we behave differently towards different people
- Explore different types of bias and their impact
- Describe what micro behaviours are and how they manifest, both positively and negatively through our behaviour and decision making
- Demonstrate the impact of micro-behaviours on individuals
- Ensure processes minimise the risk of bias in decision making
- Informally mentor people from ‘out-groups’ by choosing to consciously include them
- Apply strategies for mitigating the influence of bias and micro-inequities.
TRAINING AND ELEARNING COURSES
Below is a selection of courses that relate to this article.