Unconscious Bias Training… Does it Work?

Unconscious bias is all the talk in diversity these days. It is as if someone turned on a switch and companies everywhere are adding unconscious bias training to their diversity programs.

I am not against it, but it has been part of cultural training and diversity for decades. The only thing that happened is it became zeroed out as a point to focus on. Much like repacking products for sale at the grocery store; where the company will come out with a new and improved version, which is basically the exact same thing as the old product.

Whether you are a large or small company, a leader in your own home turf or overseas on a global assignment, diversity issues are everywhere. Singling out one area of it and focusing only on that one theme fails to address the bigger picture. And the big picture is that culture is the driving force behind much of human behavior.

If you are not addressing the cultural background and belief systems that individuals hold, you will be misunderstood.

The central contradiction of unconscious bias training is that you can’t train something you can’t control. Most of us can’t control what our brain does. You can’t become more objective just by learning about or thinking about biases; unconscious bias training does not actually provide you the tools to do something about how your brain behaves.

This is the basic problem with using unconscious bias as the starting point to improve functioning. You can show someone that he or she has an unconscious bias, and you can even identify what some of those biases are. But then, what do you do about it?  How do you use this information to effectively create positive change?

It’s like designing a weight loss program that consists of two steps, Step 1: proving to people that they eat too much and exercise too little, Step 2: tell them to eat less and exercise more.  Guess how well that program is going to work!

Reality is that it will only produce a slight improvement in a small fraction of people, for the very reason that the forces that drive the problem are unconscious.

These forces are not subject to conscious control, which is why the problem of obesity is so widespread and difficult to solve. At best, one can increase awareness, which will create a very small marginal improvement, but likely to fall far short of the results that organizations want to achieve.

So the common sense conclusion is that unconscious bias training is not likely to create much change in how people actually behave. Experience has shown me that this conclusion is accurate. However, I wondered what the scientists who do research in this field have concluded. They spend a lot of time researching unconscious bias, and they must know something about it. Do they agree with me?

Some of the best, and most honored, scientists in this field work on a program called Project Implicit, at Harvard and some other top universities. So I decided to take some of their unconscious bias tests and to see what practical recommendations they would have to improve an unconscious bias.

Their test is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, and can easily be taken in about 15 minutes online on their website at implict.harvard.edu. They have versions for several different kinds of unconscious bias. The tests are well-designed, scientifically accurate and fun to take.

To give an example, one test is called the Gender-Career IAT. This test identifies unconscious bias that associates Career with Male, and Family with Female. Even if people consciously believe that females are just as appropriate for careers as males, and males are just as appropriate for raising families as females, the test can detect subtle reactions that indicate there is still bias in the associations of the unconscious mind.

This test has been given to thousands of people and shows that 75% have this particular unconscious bias.

The moment of truth comes after you complete the test, when they give you your results and you are left asking yourself, “What Can I Do About an Implicit Preference That I Do Not Want?”  I think their answer says it all:

”Right now, there is not enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated. Packaged ‘diversity trainings’ generally do not use evidence-based methods of reducing implicit biases. Therefore, we encourage people to instead focus on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to operate, such as blind auditions and well-designed ‘structured’ decision processes.”

I don’t know about you, but I found it encouraging that, at least in this case, top scientists reach the same conclusion as common sense.

Practically speaking, according to the scientists, the best proven way to reduce the effects of unconscious bias is to set up an environment where personal reactions can’t occur. For example, have the hiring decision made by a person who doesn’t know whether the applicant is male or female. If this is impossible, you can set up a detailed and complicated process where a large amount of objective data drowns out personal reactions.

Such strategies could be a good idea for some decisions about hiring and promotion. But they are impossible to implement in the situations that matter most– the day to day interactions between real live people from diverse backgrounds and different cultures.

If your company is experiencing difficulty because its retail clerks are offending customers, identifying unconscious bias is not going to solve the problem. If your top male executives are having trouble working with female bosses, or making blunders while on an important overseas assignment, then unconscious bias training is not going to solve the problem.

The best approach is a cultural approach: one that gets to the root of culture and cultural differences that explores the cultural norms, expectations and beliefs that every person has.

One objection to a cultural approach is that it involves stereotyping people from different cultures. So how does one go beyond stereotyping? The answer is that every human being is different, no matter how many characteristics he or she might share with other members of his or her culture. Only an individualized approach can work.

It may be that an executive lives out a particular normative behavior from the culture they came from, and expects others to do the same. But the personal meaning of this varies greatly from individual to individual. The more you explore the things that members of a culture have in common, the more you realize just how unique each individual is.

For example in an overseas assignment, the starting point to cross cultural training is not giving the transferee a list of stereotypes about the country and culture he or she is going to. The starting point is exploring the employee’s own cultural background, in the context of the real-life, day to day, problems that they encounter in their daily work.


Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash



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