Unconscious bias training is in. It’s neat; it incorporates lots of cool new science. It’s sexy; it incorporates lots of cool images and eye opening exercises. It’s trendy; all the cool kids are doing it. And it’s safe; no one talks about racism.
That’s where the legitimate criticism comes in. As with other “in” diversity topics of the past, some raise concern that unconscious bias training won’t make a difference. It’s another fad that doesn’t address real issues or lead to meaningful change. Straight white men will go to these workshops, learn everyone’s biased (“See! It’s not just me; they’re biased too!”), learn it’s unconscious (“See! It’s not my fault; it’s unconscious!”) and change nothing.
I agree that there is this potential, as well as the danger of seeing little-to-no return on investment for the millions of dollars spent on such training. This degrades the reputation of diversity and inclusion as nice-to-have window dressing instead of the results-driven, value-add, must-have that it is — or should be.
There’s another possibility – to use unconscious bias training to shift inequitable power dynamics along lines of race and other identity differences. This requires courage, clarity, leadership and the inclusion of the following seven elements:
- Always make the business and results case for diversity and inclusion up front. This provides essential context and increases training participant interest and buy in. Research by scholars like Scott E. Page, James Surowiecki and Nancy Adler have shown the superior results created by diverse groups compared to individuals and non-diverse groups, but only if there is inclusion and effective management of diversity.
- Encourage curiosity and critical thinking about common collective biases. The research on implicit (unconscious) bias shows clear tendencies. Biases aren’t random or equally distributed among groups. Overwhelmingly, more people hold more negative unconscious biases about people of color, women, LGBT and people with disabilities than they do about White people, men, straight and “able bodied” folks. Also, being a member of a group doesn’t inoculate someone against carrying negative unconscious bias towards their own group. Many African Americans carry negative unconscious biases towards African Americans, women towards women, and so on.
- This is about racism. Racism is not individual acts of meanness towards someone who looks different – that’s prejudice. Racism is about ways we collectively assign value, make assumptions and distribute resources inequitably along racial lines defined by physical traits. This process is driven by unconscious biases – databases in our reptilian brain that come from centuries of inherited messages about members of other racial groups as well as current messages our brains capture from our environment and catalog outside our awareness. If left unconscious and unchecked, these biases express in our decisions and behavior, which have disproportionately negative impacts on people of color. The word “racism” need never be uttered to facilitate curiosity and awareness of this important feature of unconscious bias.
- Address the inequitable impact of negative and positive biases on members of different groups. Anyone can find themselves on the receiving end of meanness or prejudice. But not everyone finds themselves getting the short end of the unconscious bias (racism) stick. Our unconscious biases and the resulting behaviors don’t affect others equitably. The multiple positive biases towards Whites serve them way more than any positive biases towards people of color. The multiple negative biases towards people of color harm them way more than the few negative biases towards White people.
- Try this for yourself – make lists for each of those four categories. Notice how easy or difficult that was for each, and how long each list is. Notice how much or how little the qualities on each of those lists impact the material quality of life for the majority in that category.
- This is also about racism. Left unconscious and unchecked, our negative unconscious biases have disproportionately negative impacts on people of color. The word “racism” need not be stated to make this important point. This discussion may take place during exploration of “insider-outsider” groups, which form along all aspects of human difference.
- Allow participants to feel some degree of unease. Guilt is healthy, but shame is not. Guilt – highlighting a gap between a person’s intent and impact, between their values and behavior – can be a powerful motivator for change. It’s powerful and generative as long as they stay out of shame – feeling like a bad or wrong person for having the gap.
- Focus on behavior, not thoughts. It’s not effective to tell people to constantly monitor their minds for biased thoughts, or imply this is the way to go. Such a message increases anxiety, guilt and a sense of powerlessness that doesn’t lead to creativity or more effective behavior. It’s also neither possible nor effective to focus on thought policing – it’s exhausting, and there are always mental processes operating outside our awareness. Instead, focus training participants on noticing their thoughts (with humor, curiosity and compassion!) then disrupting their behavior by slowing down and choosing actions more deliberately. Unconscious bias only harms others or gets in the way of results when it translates into an action that has an inequitable or ineffective outcome – thoughts alone are relatively harmless!
- Encourage responsibility and commitment to concrete actions. Learning about unconscious bias does not, and should not, let people off the hook, especially those who benefit more from positive biases and are harmed less by negative ones. Any unconscious bias training should include a discussion of the handful of research-based methods to reduce unconscious biases (total elimination of unconscious bias is neither possible nor desirable) and mitigate their undesirable effects. Training should also help participants identify specific effective behaviors and commit to implementation.
- Follow up. Follow up. Follow up. Behavior change doesn’t come automatically after a workshop. Change is challenging and requires focused attention, opportunity and time to form and practice new habits, a culture that supports and reinforces the change, and accountability.
Racism – both our past history and current reality – shows up in our deep, collective unconscious biases. Overwhelmingly these unconscious biases enhance White people and diminish people of color. They then express in our decisions and behaviors, reinforcing them in our brains. Disrupting such actions and putting systems in place to correct for our biases – without getting caught up in shame, guilt or silence – will, over time, allow for more diversity, inclusion and equity in the world and workplaces. As diversity, inclusion and equity increase, our collective brain database about who belongs where and who has worth will shift. This will reduce our brains’ tendency to make snap decisions about other humans based on limited data that is inaccurate and inequitable.
And that’s something that serves everyone’s brilliance, excellence, health and happiness.