Unconscious bias training – is it effective?

Published on January 24th, 2023

Unconscious bias training - is it effective? blog image

Unconscious bias training has become a popular option for addressing issues of workplace diversity and inclusion. However, many experts have raised questions about its effectiveness.  

Research studies have shown that while unconscious bias training may help us be more aware of our implicit biases, it is rarely effective in reducing those biases or improving decision-making behavior. Rather, organizations need to develop comprehensive plans to foster an inclusive and respectful work environment that goes beyond one-time training sessions.  

This may include things like gathering feedback from employees and conducting assessments of organizational practices or integrating diversity initiatives into existing recruitment, performance evaluation, and career development processes. Taking action on these points can help create lasting change by diminishing the potential for bias at all levels within an organization’s operations. 

Recently, the discussion around unconscious bias training has grown significantly; with it often forming a central part of many companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies and policies.  

However, there is little conclusive evidence that suggests unconscious bias training makes a tangible difference in tackling existing bias within organizational cultures. In order to make more significant advances in addressing these issues, we must explore what impactful measures can be taken to make lasting change. 

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is a form of mental “lazy thinking”, often perpetuating negative stereotypes and resulting in discrimination. It can be rooted in organizational culture as well as among individuals themselves, manifesting in various aspects of life from the hiring process to day-to-day interactions.  

Unconscious discrimination and stereotyping are both root causes of inequality that can have a deep-seated impact on both individuals and broader society. Examples of unconscious discrimination include making assumptions about individuals based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, or any other personal trait which can unfairly influence one’s status or power.  

Unconscious stereotypes can introduce bias into our decision-making processes, whether at work or in any other environment. Stereotyping is based on an oversimplified view of the world that fails to appreciate a person’s individual qualifications or take their true character into account. It is an insidious form of prejudice that can lead to alienation and cause immense harm to those affected by it. It is important for us to be aware of how these negative biases can manifest in conversations and actions so that we can consciously strive for more equitable outcomes throughout our lives. 

While it may feel uncomfortable, engaging in unconscious bias training can make all the difference when it comes to preventing decisions based on preconceived assumptions and views. It can help ensure that everyone is aware of the ramifications of their behaviors and any potential biases they must guard against. 

Organizational and individual bias

Organizational and individual bias presents a challenge to your organization, particularly when it comes to personnel decisions. 

Organizational bias is when an organization’s policies, procedures, or practices have unintentional (or sometimes deliberate) discriminatory results. At every level of an organization, decisions are made which can result in unequal outcomes for certain groups of people.  

Individual bias is the personal preference based on someone’s own beliefs and experiences. It can be: 

  • Conscious  
  • Unconscious 

Individual bias is a natural phenomenon, one that most people are not aware of in everyday conversation. It can take both conscious and unconscious forms, often going unnoticed until it’s already had an effect on people’s thought processes or the outcome of an event. This type of bias affects each person differently, according to their unique experiences and beliefs.  

Understanding individual biases can help us become more aware of our own biases and those of others, leading to better perceptions of the world around us and improved decision-making. 

Unconscious individual bias can be particularly harmful in the workplace as it may lead to preferential treatment or prevent members of certain groups from getting the jobs they deserve.  

Organizations should strive to reduce any bias within the organization by increasing awareness through diversity and inclusion initiatives and engaging their workforces to understand their own biases that could impact a colleague’s advancement. When organizations focus on this topic, they are making sure their staff has the same opportunities for growth and success regardless of background or identity. 

Bias can lead to discrimination in the workplace, which not only impairs an organization’s ability to retain top talent but also hinders productivity and growth. Acknowledging and being aware of these biases is key to creating an empathy-driven culture where everyone has an equal chance of achieving success. Leaders must be proactive in identifying what creates bias and take steps toward mitigating it.  

This includes creating a structure that emphasizes benchmarking, diversity training for all staff, using non-discriminatory language across the board, seeking out diverse opinions within decision-making processes, and providing equal access to opportunities. Without actively tackling bias issues, organizations risk alienating their workforce while potentially sacrificing top talent and innovation due to existing inequalities. 

Why doesn’t training work?

Unconscious bias training is often met with skepticism, as there are many potential obstacles to it achieving tangible outcomes. It may start off being seen as too superficial to really overcome ingrained biases and not link in with broader adult learning theory. 

Additionally, without sufficient expertise or focus on the trainer’s part, unconscious bias training can struggle to fulfill its potential. This compounds the difficulties of getting true DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion ) experts in front of employees due to their higher demand compared to other learning and development professionals. A lack of expertise and lived experience can lead to an unsatisfactory session for those participants expecting real solutions rather than theoretical solutions. 

How to fix unconscious bias training?

Unconscious bias training has the potential to be highly effective in ensuring increased diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. In order to maximize this impact, however, organizations should carefully consider how they approach such training.  

Starting with clear objectives in terms of specific changes desired should serve as a foundation for success that is both quantifiable and qualitative. It is also important that leadership establishes an example of discussing DEI issues and unconscious bias so that further learning can be successful. To effectively support learning outcomes, using case studies and scenarios fairly frequently in discussions can help staff draw their own conclusions rather than simply being told answers. Finally, working from a framework of creating change, rather than only focusing on awareness or accusing those involved of biases can go a long way towards truly making an impact in this area. 

Unconscious bias training is a controversial topic and opinions vary as to its effectiveness. Organizations that take the training seriously will gain an understanding that there is no quick fix to behaviors that have built up over years of personal and societal conditioning. Poor quality solutions, such as one-time checkbox sessions, are often inadequate when addressing such an issue and can even be counter-productive.  

For meaningful change to happen, individuals within a team need to understand why these unconscious biases persist and how they manifest in workplace behavior. A long-term approach is necessary, with continual measurement of bias impact, analysis of data, adjustment of strategies in light of the findings, and repetition over time being key elements. Only through such steps can organizations create a workplace culture where everyone feels welcomed and respected.

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