24 June 2021
Unconscious biases are the views and opinions that operate outside our conscious awareness, impacting our daily behaviours and decisions (Atewologun et al, 2018).
As diversity and inclusion became a central focus at many organisations, they looked toward trainings that would tackle problems around discrimination and prejudice. Enter, unconscious bias training (UBT) into the workplace.
There’s no set standard to what these trainings cover, but most shed light on the specific biases we have and teach that unconscious bias is inevitable; we all have them.
The goal of these widely used trainings is that by increasing awareness of our unconscious biases, we’ll reduce the impact they have. The intention is righteous, but are these trainings actually effective?
Let’s see if being aware of our biases at work can actually remove them.
For the next minute, do not think of a polar bear.
How often did you end up thinking about that bear?
Social psychologist Daniel Wegner’s experiment asked participants to share their stream of conscious thoughts for five minutes, while being told not to think about a white bear. Within that time, if a bear came to mind, they rang a bell; the bell kept ringing.
This study identified ironic process theory, where conscious attempts are made to suppress certain thoughts, only making it more likely they’ll surface.
UBT operates under the belief that making people aware of their biases will result in fairer behaviour. But the opposite is true. Telling people they need to be more aware of their biases only makes these biases more visible, and people more likely to rely on them.
Here are three reasons why UBT can backfire:
1. We resist being told what to do.
Calling someone out isn’t likely to win them over to your side. Referred to as the “backlash effect”, some people will do the opposite of what they’re told, simply because they don’t like being told what to do. When presented with criticism that goes against our self-view, such as being told we’re biased, this effect is intensified.
2. It’s OK, if we usually behave well.
Have you ever rationalised some late-night nachos because you did an intense workout that morning? “Moral licensing” is when people justify doing something bad if they’ve recently done something good. With UBT, people feel they’re aware of their own biases, and therefore can skip taking the necessary steps to actually doing something about them.
3. We all want to be good people.
Yet raising our awareness of our biases, without providing information on what to do differently, makes us nervous around this topic. The result is that we’re afraid to have uncomfortable conversations and are turned off by diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts.
Making an individual aware of their biases is not enough to solve the problem. A real solution requires a change in behaviour.
For example, a common challenge in locations heavily trafficked with cars and bicycles, are that cyclists can get seriously hurt when people open their car doors without checking behind them. How could this be solved?
Raising a driver’s awareness of the issue wouldn’t solve the problem; you need to change their behaviour. Known as “the Dutch Reach”, drivers in the Netherlands are taught to reach for the door handle with their hand furthest from the door, forcing their head to swivel and notice any oncoming cyclists before opening the door. Making drivers and cyclists not only aware of the issue but giving them a way to correct their behaviour for it, has allowed the two to coexist.
When we look at interventions to reduce bias, many succeed in the short-term. But to have a long-term effect, we need to solve for a specific bias challenge. One way to do this is to create an environment where it’s safe to call out bias when we spot it.
A tennis player wouldn’t referee their own match; the impartial referee makes the calls. The bias blindspot shows us that it’s easier to spot bias in others than it is ourselves; it’s easier to be the referee than the player. Instead of aiming to raise our own awareness of our biases, which we know doesn’t work, it’s more achievable to spot bias in others.
It can be uncomfortable to speak up and challenge bias, so we need to create an environment where we can “call it out” safely.
Create dialogue, not a debate: People need affirmation, to feel good about who they are versus feeling threatened (Adams et al, 2006). When we feel threatened, we’re more likely to become defensive and less likely to see our biases. To do this we need to affirm the validity of an individual’s input and use questions rather than accusations to come to an understanding. We can use statements such as:
Assume positive intent: Go into a conversation assuming the best rather than bracing for the worst. Avoid interruptions and work together to challenge existing assumptions you both hold. To create a safe environment, we need to know we’re listening to what others have to say (and that it’s OK to be wrong). Ask questions such as:
Beyond creating an environment where it’s safe to call out biases, what else can be done to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace?
We all have biases and awareness raising alone won’t fix the problem. Here are some techniques individuals, teams and organisations can use to make it easier to make good decisions.
Create accountability habits: Build awareness of things that can derail your judgement and set goals to shift specific behaviours. Practise thinking strategies to challenge your logic and reasoning.
Build self-correcting networks: Make collective use of structured decision processes at decision points and change social norms around informal decision making.
Make good decisions through choice architecture: Organise the context in which people make decisions, e.g. avoid demographic questions at the start of assessments, share counter-stereotypical images and make simultaneous rather than sequential hiring decisions.
Want to know more?
Download our whitepaper – The Inclusion Solution which reveals how the world’s most progressive companies are transforming their approach to inclusion.
Get it together. MindGym’s webinar on how you can make your inclusion and diversity efforts less polarising and more unifying.
We’re all biased. Understand how good people fight bias in Dolly Chugh’s book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.