Unconscious bias training: Does it work?

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You might think that's an odd question given that I am spending most of my time right now thinking about and talking  about bias training. We've been delivering bias training for several years but it won't surprise you that since the killing of George Floyd and the rise in the Black Lives Matter movement that demand has increased significantly.

The question is: does unconscious or implicit bias training work? There is no question that if all you are interested in doing is a tick box approach, getting people into a virtual room to listen to someone from outside the organisation preach at them, or indeed logging onto a digital platform (whilst they do their weekly shop from their desk) for 20 minutes, bias training will not and does not work.  Don't kid yourselves that you are making a difference. Your people are likely to be genuinely interested - after all we love hearing about our brains - but they will leave that training with no idea how to apply what they've learnt to their jobs, or their lives and their social connections.

Of course I think bias training works - I wouldn't be very good at my job otherwise! For the record I hate the term bias. I think people come to the room already on the defensive (and possibly the offensive). They disassociate from the learning. Bias is seen as something bad people have and none of us like to believe we are bad individuals. There are plenty of commentaries out there that say bias training doesn't work  for the compliance mindset reasons set out above. One recent article suggested that it doesn't work because we can't  unlearn the shortcuts we've learnt over a lifetime and because humans developed these shortcuts in basically static environments, with little change for centuries. Yup that makes sense to me. But I don't think it deals with the issue of whether bias training works. You can't tell people to unwire their brains. All you can do is ask them, challenge them to notice their wiring, surface their wiring, share their wiring and then ..... develop tools, processes and people to minimise the negative impact of that wiring and to highlight the wiring when you aren't paying attention. When it is a Monday afternoon and you need to make a quick decision about who you allocate a new project to, or when someone says "Can I just run something by you?".  These are the crunch times - those moments when you are likely to follow the learnt patterns of  thinking with the resulting behaviour or look up and ask yourself "What if i didn't do it that way?"

So, my top 5 tips for a successful bias training programme are these:

1. Be clear what you are trying to achieve. If all you are trying to do is raise awareness that we all are biased, then stick to a short sharp broadcast style event. Our new virtual world is made for this. But if you want to dig deeper and get people to really reflect and understand what biases they have and how deep they go, then opt for a smaller virtual (right now) classroom. Yes it will be a bit pricier but your people will actually learn something and start to develop that knowledge  and feel equipped to take it outside the classroom. 

2. Don't call it "bias" training  (or even worse "de-bias" - see above for reasons as to why this is not possible!) - spin it on it's head. Focus on why we all need to understand our biases. So that we can all benefit. So that we can all thrive. A workplace programme might be something like Inclusive Leadership or Building inclusive behaviours, something positive that tells people why this is important to the organisation.

3. Don't fill it with too much neuroscience - keep it practical and relevant. I talk about it meaning something to people on a Monday morning when they decide who to chat to or what they chat about and on a Tuesday afternoon when they need to make a quick decision.

4. Ensure people connect with the content on a human level. Allow them to feel. Build content around the humanising moments in their past and their present. Don't preach or tell them. Help them navigate the emotions and get there themselves.

5. Focus on accountability - everything should lead people to accountability. What are they actually going to do with this knowledge, who will challenge their thinking, who will support them to ensure that the impact of bias is  minimised.

So yes, I think bias training does work as long as you remain clear to your purpose. The training is a tool to raise awareness and challenge people to reflect and adapt their patterns of behaviour. Organsiations can and should support their people outside the training room with resources, processes and practices that help individuals pause and question their thinking. Active and influential network groups, mentoring schemes and listening groups, and procedures built upon fair and objective accountability criteria all go a long way to helping people navigate their biases. But at the end of the day, it is up to all of us to recognise our biases and to commit to doing better, being better at making unbiased decisions based upon objective criteria. You know I want/need to say this ......please contact me if you'd like to hear more about our blended learning approach. I really do love talking about this stuff!

You can read out commitment to Black Lives Matter here.

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