Unconscious bias training: best practices and limitations
This is the first in a three-part series on unconscious bias training (UBT). Subsequent articles will address metrics, globalization and steps organisations are taking to build on the concepts introduced in UBT.
The concept of “unconscious” or “implicit” bias has been embraced by many organisations as a less negative approach to dealing with stereotypes and prejudice. UBT acknowledges that generalisation is a necessary psychological process that allows us to make sense of our world, but that also can lead, involuntarily, to unfounded assumptions about people. Members of Mercer’s UK diversity networks – Vanguard, the private sector network, and Breakthrough, for public sector diversity leaders – recently convened for a special roundtable discussion about how this concept is being incorporated into diversity efforts, especially training. Representatives from 21 companies discussed the pros and potential cons of UBT, how it is best implemented, and the next steps organisations can take to reinforce and expand on the concepts.
Most of the organisations around the table started their forays into UBT at the top of the house, usually by bringing in an outside consultant to present the concept to senior leaders and facilitate a dialogue. They then moved on to the next several layers of management. In this phase, the organisations sometimes developed their own in-house training or contracted with a different vendor, one less expensive than the high-profile expert engaged for the senior leaders or able to provide a larger staff of trainers. Finally, to bring UBT to a still broader audience, many organisations developed e-learning courses. Some organisations have been found that interactive theatre can be an effective hybrid training approach, accommodating relative large groups of participants (100+) in a very engaging manner.
Roundtable participants agreed that it’s important to have realistic expectations for UBT and how it fits within a diversity training and culture change initiative. UBT challenges deeply rooted beliefs built up over people’s lifetimes. It focuses on the psychology of decision making rather than behaviour. Under business or personal stress individuals are likely to revert to old biases when making decisions. UBT is not, therefore, the answer to all diversity and inclusion issues. The training needs to be refreshed and reinforced and followed up with other kinds of skills-building experiences.
UB focuses on individual biases, but does not address those that are built into the way the organisation operates. If policies, processes, and structures don’t change in tandem with attitudes and behaviours, efforts to change the culture will be undermined by the old intractable system.
We will continue to discuss best practices for leveraging UBT as part of a comprehensive diversity strategy in next month’s World of Difference and in future Network meetings. If you are interested in learning more about the Breakthrough (next meeting, October 18) or Vanguard (meeting November 8) Networks, contact Deirdre Golden.