We humans can be an irrational bunch. On one hand we know that we shouldn’t smoke, we should exercise more, eat less sugar and start a pension when we’re young. Yet while we know that our behaviour is self-sabotaging, we still do all the wrong things.
And therein lies the challenge for unconscious bias training – while it makes sense at a logical level, its potential to impact behaviours and attitudes is limiting.
Bias definedBias is a tendency, inclination or prejudice towards or against something or someone. We all have them; they’re the product of our life experiences and hark back to a time when such bias was imperative for survival. Our brains are primed to make split second decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences. The problem is that when those assumptions are based on both positive and negative stereotypes, they lead to poor and often discriminatory decision-making.
Without the right context, training may only serve to make people compliant. It can even breed resentment and cause more problems than it solves. This is especially true when such training is mandated for employees, as if the responsibility to remedy the situation is theirs, while fundamental flaws in the culture or systems of an organisation go unchallenged.
So, how does an organisation create the right climate for effective unconscious bias training?
Creating the right climate
Negative stereotypes arise from ignorance or anxiety about failing to understand our differences. The best way to challenge such stereotypes is therefore direct exposure to the subject of our preconceptions. In practical terms, that can mean actively hiring or promoting more diverse candidates.
Research shows that when we can re-categorise others according to shared features or characteristics, we are more likely to see them as part of our tribe and less likely to experience prejudicial thoughts.
Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganise itself throughout our life based on our experiences – suggests that the way we categorise others is more malleable than we imagine. With the right stimulus, i.e. getting to know people as real people rather than part of an ethnic, age or gender group, we can effectively rewire our brain.
Research from MIT suggests that organisations with meritocratic values are often the worst offenders when it comes to bias, specifically as it relates to gender; favouring men over women who perform equally, particularly in terms of bonus or career opportunities. Conversely, organisations that value individual autonomy showed no such difference, leading researchers to conclude that merit-based pay practices, in particular, may fail to achieve race-neutral or gender-neutral outcomes.
Ironically, it appears as though managers who work for meritocratic organisations believe that they are more impartial and unconsciously act on their biases.
While it is very difficult to entirely eliminate bias, we can make it easier for our biased minds to make fair decisions. The best approach is to limit the trigger opportunities for bias by engineering it out of our systems and processes. Most people have heard of the blind orchestra auditions in which candidates auditioned behind a screen. Even when the screen was only used for the preliminary round, it had a powerful impact – researchers have determined that this step alone made it 50% more likely that a woman would advance to the finals.
Unconscious bias training has its place, but it isn’t a silver bullet that will solve the challenges of diversity in our organisations. It’s far more successful in environments where diversity exists, highlighting our tendency to stereotype rather than making us more open to embracing diversity.