Dear Jasmar: How should I roll out Unconscious Bias Training?
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
The company I work at is all over the news for a racially charged situation. Now our leadership wants to roll out unconscious bias training to everyone. I’ve read that it doesn’t work, but I’ve also read that it does. What should I do?
Such an important question! It’s hard to know what to do, especially when so many claims aren’t really supported by evidence. And when every other company is doing diversity training, it’s easy to copy that and think we’re making a difference. I’m so glad you’re taking a moment to think through a more impactful approach!
Let’s turn to principles from behavioural science to make sure you roll out an effective unconscious bias (UB) program for your organization.
Change behaviour, not beliefs.
An extensive history of evidence within behavioural science suggests there is no relationship between our behaviours and beliefs. Most of the discrimination occurring in the workplace cannot be predicted by employees’ attitudes, and consequently, we are highly unlikely to prevent these behaviours by relying on UB training. For example, after a learning diversity program only those who were already diversity champions displayed positive behaviours. However, employees who needed to change their behaviours the most showed no signs of change beyond their beliefs and knowledge.
BJ Fogg, behaviour change expert at Stanford and author of the best-seller book, Tiny Habits, says there are three ways to change behaviour – have an epiphany, change the environment in which a decision is made, or practice tiny habits.
The first way, to change beliefs, is difficult, if not impossible. Yet so much current Unconscious Bias training only tries to change beliefs and raise awareness. But awareness alone does not lead to behaviour change! We think we must change our minds first and then behaviours will follow; this is simply not true. Decades of behavioural science shows that a behaviour-first approach can solve social problems where belief-based strategies have failed.
The second, changing the environment, is so incredibly powerful. Evidence supports the use of nudging to change behaviour. Nudges are subtle interventions placed in the environment to influence people’s behavior without restricting it. This is a much more powerful way to interrupt biases. Remember, biases are unconscious and fly under our radar. How, in the moment of making an important people decision, can we be sure we’re not influenced by our biases? We can’t … but we can design out of them! For example, we can reduce the gender evaluation and compensation gap by simply reviewing resumes side-by-side, rather than one at a time. Small change, big impact!
The third, practicing tiny habits, should be the foundation of your UB training. You will want to help people make small, incremental changes to break bias in their everyday behaviour. Jasmar’s Belonging Engine is an easy-to-use tech platform to practice inclusive habits. As well, we augment habit building through team conversations, equipping leaders with step-by-step guides to design team nudges, interrupt bias and create a “middle out” culture shift.
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Reasons why UB Training does not work
Information Overload! Think about the last time that you participated in a learning program and try to recall the specifics of what you learned. It is almost impossible! Good training programs strive for employees to take away 1 or 2 major key points but not change our habits. Our brains are overloaded with information and heavy workloads that trying to slow down our train of thought to break habits is challenging.
Reminds us about stereotypes. Don’t think of pink elephants while reading this paragraph! It is human nature to fixate our attention on things that we are told not to do even when we consciously try to avoid them. When we undergo UB training and we are told to resist stereotypes and challenges that minority groups face, we may end up using those stereotypes, more simply because we have been reminded and told to avoid them, like the pink elephant still in your mind.
We like autonomy. Humans do not like to be told what to do. We can all relate to this from experience and evidence comparing different types of messaging around diversity initiatives confirms this. When employees read communications that promote freedom of choice like “Only you can decide to be an egalitarian person” employees displayed less bias. On the contrary, employees who received restricting messages like “ We should refrain from negative stereotypes” displayed more bias. These effects are also seen at an organizational level. A study involving 829 organizations found that companies with mandatory diversity training saw their proportions of minority group representations decrease whilst those across voluntary training increased. None of us like being told what to do.
Remember the importance of evidence
New knowledge is continuously being created. We must be open to change our beliefs on what works and recognize that we are always learning about new ways to improve our current approaches. Recently I replied to a curious reader about the importance of evidence. What does the evidence tell us about UB training? Unfortunately, unconscious bias is a concept that we still fall short to measure objectively. Although Implicit Association Tests (IAT) exist, these assessments are perceived as weak predictors of behaviour in the academic space. They are useful for raising awareness of bias, but if your organization deploys these tests before and after the UB training program in hopes of measuring behaviour change, they will be disappointed. It will be almost impossible to determine whether this training was effective, for how long, or if it backfired.
It is not all lost hope
While current approaches to UB Training are not leading to behaviour change, they are having other benefits. Evidence suggests that UB training can influence cognitive learning and provide employees with knowledge about diversity and discrimination. As might be expected, long-term learning programs have more impact.
However, if your goal is to change attitudes and behaviour, a better approach is to utilize UB training as one tool within a wider DEI strategy that is evidence-based and leverages behavioural science. After all, how can we expect to change behaviour, if we don’t bring an understanding of how people actually behave to our solutions?
I hope this helps to give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t. The Jasmar Group is all about behaviour change done right. Reach out if you’d like to learn more!
Let’s Make Inclusion Stick!
The Jasmar Group is a behaviour change consultancy that helps organizations build team belonging, culture, and performance. Our solutions are evidence-based and designed to drive faster progress towards diverse and inclusive workplaces.
Interested in a new approach to building a diverse and inclusive workplace? Contact Sylvia Apostolidis, President of The Jasmar Group at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-262-2779.