It’s time we talked about unconscious bias training. There has been a fair bit of debate lately about the benefit or otherwise of this popular approach to addressing our biases. There are many companies who have implemented the training; Starbucks in the US is probably a well-known and widely cited example of an organisation that orchestrated a national wide closure of their stores to conduct unconscious bias training after two African American males were arrested in the store for no apparent reason.
Of all the companies we know who have taken part in unconscious bias training, not one of them are able to tell us, with absolute confidence, that it has resulted in sustainable behavioural change. And when we ask if leaders have become more insightful through the application of the key learnings, often there is an uncomfortable silence that follows. Not many are able to communicate to us how, under what circumstances, when and where they have become "more conscious" in their working lives.
In our view, the debate over whether unconscious bias training is a good or bad idea is not the right debate. What we should be asking instead is - does the unconscious bias training form part of a comprehensive strategy? If the unconscious bias training is just one item on a shopping list of initiatives being systematically rolled out, then the chances are that it will fail, or even worse, result in resistance and backlash.
Often, when people become aware of their biases it can lead to a defensive reaction because this newly acquired information does not fit with an individual’s version of themselves. Creating an environment of safety and trust is therefore imperative. Equally imperative is the capability of the consultants who educate around this topic and how this initiative is integrated into the overall D&I strategy.
Not only is unconscious bias training difficult to comprehend for those newer to heuristics, cementing the learnings into one's consciousness requires a high level of self-awareness to begin with. Organisations need to think about rolling out these initiatives, and the timing of these initiatives, i.e., when will my workforce be most receptive to accepting this new information and integrate this knowledge in their day to day life for long-term behavioural change?
Solutions to such complex problems are usually not as simple as rolling out one-off trainings. Rather, such complex problems require, firstly, deep level analysis and a carefully thought through strategy which often requires a multitude of approaches to address both structural and cultural issues. Whilst unconscious bias training may form one of the recommendations, it should never be carried out in isolation of, or without due consideration for the organisational culture.
In summary, unconscious bias training should provide the opportunity for employees to reflect on how their biases impact themselves and others, and of course share practical tools to allow them to engage differently when they are back in the workplace.
Theaanna Kiaos is an organisational anthropologist, specialising in organisational culture and diversity. Theaanna is completing her Ph.D. in Management (ethnography) through Macquarie Graduate School of Management. Theaanna has has been interviewed on SBS World News on the topic of "Most Australian workplaces are failing to achieve diversity": she has also been interviewed as a subject matter expert by Women's Agenda and Shortlist.