5 Strategies to make Unconscious Bias Training Effective

A man throws a bag with the sign "unconscious bias training" in a trashcan with the label "Nice to Have".

Unconscious bias training being thrown in the trashcan of the “nice to have”.
Figure adapted by Patricia Gestoso from this original image by OpenIcons from Pixabay.

“I’ve studied cognitive biases my whole life and I’m no better at avoiding them”

Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences

Four years ago, my interest in human behavior — crucial for my work as head of customer service — led me to Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, fast and slow”. The book details how biases and rules of thumb play a crucial role in our decisions in the back of our minds. Serendipitously, around the same time, I started some initiatives to further diversity and inclusion at my workplace and I stumbled on a wealth of studies naming unconscious biases as one of the major barriers women encounter to thrive at work.

The more I learned, the more I realized — in hindsight — how unconscious biases had plagued past decisions. I read books and articles, talked to experts, and watched unconscious bias training available on the internet (e.g. Microsoft, Facebook, Google), through the company I work for (e.g. Lynda.com), and at some e-learning platforms (e.g. +Acumen Fighting Hate & Bias). I felt empowered by this new knowledge to fight my own bias and spread the new gospel!

However, whilst binging on unconscious bias training, I couldn’t fail to notice that not everybody was so enthusiastic. The push from tech companies to pour money and time on unconscious bias training has been met with a fair amount of disbelief, predominantly questioning its effectiveness towards creating diverse and inclusive workplaces.

What about my own experience? Was unconscious bias training the “de-biasing” vaccine promised by some? O a waste of my time? 

The answer is “No. However…”

No, unconscious bias training was not a vaccine for my biases. They still influence how I make decisions, provide feedback, or run meetings. And they’ll do that endlessly.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater; the unconscious bias training was not a waste of time. I’ve got considerably better at spotting biases at the workplace. In a few instances, I’ve been able to catch myself before my bias acts. I’ve also learned that there are some triggers that make us more prone to unconscious bias: tiredness, the pressure to make a decision, and stress.

Is my experience really unusual? Let’s step out of biases for a moment and check how we tackle other challenging issues such as maintaining a “healthy” weight.

Let’s say after a medical check-up the doctor recommends me to lose 10 kg (22 lb) and start exercising regularly. She gives me a couple of leaflets with instructions on how to exercise at home, a kettlebell training video, and I attend a 1-day seminar about nutrition. That’s all.

What are the odds I lose weight, maintain it, and train regularly on my own? It’s safe to assume that not very high. The booming success of bespoke diets, well-being programs, calorie-counting apps, communities, and personal trainers evidence that there is a big gap between “knowing” something (e.g. what constitutes a balanced diet) and “acting” on that knowledge (e.g. after an exhausting workweek, choosing salad and water over a bag of Doritos and a beer).

As there is no one-off silver bullet to maintain a healthy body weight, there is none for getting rid of our biases. Unconscious bias training is not akin to a fad diet, more like a nutrition lecture that provides the scientific background to understand how our minds and bodies work. And, as a nutrition lecture, it is not sufficient to guarantee success.

How can we make unconscious bias training actionable?

Accountability | Empowerment | Friction | Planning | Measurement

In practical terms, this means

1.- Stop watering down our responsibility — Most unconscious bias training events are optional and endeavor to make us feel at ease by stressing that all humans have biases that play an invaluable role in assuring our survival. This normalizes and trivializes the problem, contributing to deem the activity a feel-good ticking exercise.

ACTION: If we want to address the pernicious effects of unconscious bias, we first need to convey why it’s an issue and make clear that we are all on the hook to mitigate it.

2.- Be prepared to be called on our biases — Our unconscious biases are “unconscious” for us, but not for the others. As a result, we are better at spotting biases in others than in ourselves. On top of it, research conducted on how cardiac surgeons learn from experience supports that we learn more from others’ failures than our own.

ACTION: Let’s get vocal about it. Empower your workforce with interventions to detect and mitigate bias on others and build a growth mindset culture.

3.- Welcome friction on a world that strives for effortless and intuitive experiences — As discussed above, if we want to mitigate our biases, we need to be prepared to slow down. As UX designer Zoltan Kollin points out in this post, friction prevents errors, educates, and changes users’ behaviors.

ACTION: In this episode of podcast Choiceology, behavioral science experts Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Professor Colin Camerer propose two techniques to reduce less-than-ideal behavior when the stakes are high:

  • Ask yourself if the problem could be framed in other ways. If yes, would that make a difference in your choices?
  • Make a conscious pause. Studies on the optimization of decision-making show that delaying decision onset successfully trades speed for accuracy.

Hiring, promoting, and allocating important projects and clients are examples of managerial tasks requiring decision making under uncertainty that can benefit from stakeholders slowing down.

4.- Focus on behavior, not on beliefs – We need to let go of the idea that to achieve real change we require that employees fully embrace the merits of diversity and inclusion. Neither can we function as individuals by forcing ourselves to consciously sanction each decision we make. We need our brain to use rules of the thumb and default choices if we don’t want to agonize every morning over which foot to put on the floor first when we go out of bed.

ACTION: We need systems embedded in our workplaces that mitigate unconscious bias. And we don’t need to look very far. Typical business expense reporting systems appear as a great inspiration for designing such processes

  • Expense reports are built on a set of criteria that spell out what is acceptable and what is not.
  • There is a traceable chain of approvals ensuring accountability.
  • Compliance is embedded on the KPIs of staff at all levels of the company.
  • There is a system of notifications prompting the users to review and act at key stage-gate points in the workflow.

As Professor Iris Bohnet asserts in the article Designing a Bias-Free Organization “our minds are stubborn beasts. It’s very hard to eliminate our biases, but we can design organizations to make it easier for our biased minds to get things right.”

5.- Measure the impact of your unconscious bias program – Mitigating unconscious bias with the goal of building a diverse and inclusive workplace shouldn’t be treated differently than other business KPIs.

ACTION: Set SMART objectives for your D&I goals. Assess the current status, deploy programs, track results, and learn from successes and failures. Repeat.

 

I believe that systemic problems like unconscious bias need systemic solutions. This has sprung my interest in creating processes and tools that slow down our decision-making process when the stakes are high and we are more prone to fall back into our “gut feelings”.

Are you using a systemic approach to counter unconscious bias? Are you interested in comparing tools and processes? Let me know in the comments.

Note: This post was originally published on Medium.

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