The “us vs them” of unconscious bias training?

Newspaper headline on siege at US Capitol

We can only change ourselves.

The truth is we can only change ourselves, not other people. Despite what we might wish for as HR and L&D professionals, the evidence shows that in general, short-term educational interventions do not change people. And this is certainly true in the world of diversity and inclusion, such as unconscious bias training, particularly where people have acquired biases over a lifetime of media exposure and real-world experience.

For those of us watching the siege of the US Capitol in Washington from the other side of the Atlantic we saw an example of this played out shockingly before our eyes. The ugly, frightening and tragic scenes in the media at the US Capitol building seemed to show a movement of people galvanised by the creation of an “us-vs–them” culture. Alienated and angry, there was a clear animosity amongst the Trump supporters towards the ‘others’. These were others who were foisting change upon them, and on those people they felt similar to them in their country. The change in government was being “done to them” by this ‘other’ group of people, threatening a future of disempowerment, uncertainty and loss.

Now as we sit watching, it is easy to believe this was worlds away from our lives. Yet the feelings and expectations of this group of zealous protesters might not be that far from the experience of many people in the UK workforce.

Unconscious bias training

The recent report by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has highlighted the evidence on unconscious bias training. They explain that asking people to undertake training to improve diversity and inclusion in our British workplaces – using unconscious bias training – can have the unintended consequences. For example, leaving many “confused, angry or with more animosity towards differences.” In fact, they show that unconscious bias training can actually activate stereotypes, remind people of their “us” and “them” categories, making them more likely to be front of mind when the training finishes. BIT say this can happen “both when we are asked to try to suppress our own stereotypes, or when we are asked to confront them.” And like the scenes on TV, people react negatively to efforts to control them. Making unconscious bias training mandatory, as many companies do, can simply leave individuals feeling disempowered and left out.

Unconscious bias training has gathered momentum over the last few years, as well- intentioned companies have sought to create a fairer and more inclusive workplace. Benchmarking company HR Data Hub estimated that around 20% of companies who want to reduce their gender pay gap run sessions on unconscious bias. And because unconscious biases are simply that – unconscious – the problem is that these biases easily influence our judgement without us being aware of it.

More effective inclusion training

So, what might be a more effective training intervention for creating a fairer and more inclusive workplace?

  1. Invest in equipping those employees you identify as currently not included. Spend your training budget where it will make a difference to people. Equip those who are impacted by these unconscious moves – for example neuro-diverse, BAME, female or LGBTQ employees.
  2. Be informed and commit to a long-term strategy. If you decide to use unconscious bias training as part of your inclusion approach, collect data that demonstrates the likelihood and size of impact of your investment. Remember, trying remove the biases in people’s heads that they don’t even know they have (or don’t want to let go of) is potentially a very long-term strategy.
  3. Provide frequent and multi-modal training. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that making training an ongoing process, rather than a one-off can be beneficial. Use multiple sessions and formats. Take employees on a journey of change, not a quick fix piece of learning.
  4. Create development opportunities that enable employees to appreciate the complexity and contradictions inherent in their world and themselves. Too much training is focused on “how to do” things. More training is needed helping people think at a more complex and inclusive level. For example, The Becoming Journey is focused on “vertical development”, the inner capabilities of who the leader is and how they think.  It is about walking alongside to discover who someone is, not telling them what they need to know or do. There is no assumption that the leader lacks knowledge or competence; it assumes they are stuck or off-track and supports them as they unstick. 

Leave “us” vs “them” training behind

We should leave “us vs them” training behind. Effective inclusion training is done alongside evidence-based actions. In conjunction with proven efforts such as including multiple minority candidate in shortlists for promotion and recruitment, using skill-based assessment tasks in recruitment and encouraging salary negotiations by showing salary ranges, effective inclusion training creates a powerful impact on closing pay gaps and developing careers for those who most need it.

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