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From our lens, it looks like organisations around the world are addicted to quick fixes on big challenges. Now, the turn has come to unconscious bias (UB) awareness training as THE solution for fixing inequality, discrimination, and poor decision-making about talent and business.

Unconscious bias awareness training has become so hot that in the US alone it’s estimated that the annual diversity and inclusion training (including unconscious bias awareness) spending tops $8 billion. Plus, there is a significant increase in new talent-focused software products to address bias, with venture capitalist investing over $50 million in these. The popular growth is also illustrated by many multinationals making their internal UB courses available for others outside the company to view and use.  And in global Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) networks, conferences, and organisations, unconscious bias is typically in the top two topics discussed (the other is gender).  There is a loud, growing buzz and investment in unconscious bias awareness training as being the great hope for ‘fixing’ inclusion & diversity, but the outcomes are actually not so hot.

As we have both experienced in our previous roles as internal global heads of Inclusion & Diversity and in our many international networks, two tendencies are emerging among professionals and organisations worldwide.

One tendency is that organisations search for unconscious bias awareness training that can fix their inclusion & diversity issues and can be the catalyst for making diversity a business imperative (which is what the business case has ‘promised’ for decades, but for the most part, hasn’t succeeded with generating the change needed). Typically the request is like this: “We would like to have a 1 to 3 hour session that is entertaining, eye-opening, convincing, based on science but not with scientific content, and that does not put the leaders and employees on the spot – they just need to be more aware of bias.”

The other tendency is a fatigue around unconscious bias awareness (similar to the tendency of gender fatigue found in many organisations).  Say the words “unconscious bias” and many people now roll their eyes. We were invited to give a keynote talk at a big international conference on Inclusion & Diversity in Asia in the fall and were told something in the lines of this: “The audience already knows about unconscious bias and there is so much focus on this in networks, conferences, and media, but the training sessions they have implemented are not showing the results, so please don’t mention UB awareness as the solution.” This is exactly what we have also experienced. And now research is actually showing that unconscious bias awareness training even backfires.

It is not unusual that we hear from internal I&D change leaders that over time they end up having doubts on their UB awareness trainings to have lasting impact supporting change. I&D Practitioners, HR, and business leaders ask “So what’s next?” when they see little-to-nothing has changed with their diversity data, decision making, and behavioural change. This has really been noticed in the tech sector with its very public discussion on their challenges in achieving a better diversity mix, their move to more diversity data transparency, and public statements that unconscious bias training is evidence of their commitments for reaching gender parity (globally) and racial parity (in the US). However, this lack of real diversity representation change ominously echoes what research has shown. The findings point out that UB awareness trainings may actually unintentionally encourage more biased thinking and behaviors. Also, by hearing that others are biased and its ‘natural’ to hold stereotypes, we feel less motivated to change biases

and stereotypes are strengthened (‘follow the herd’ bias).  This heavy push for unconscious bias awareness training is not the magic solution for promoting more inclusiveness and leveraging the diversity of all talents.  Awareness is simply not sufficient for lasting, impactful behaviourial and organisational change.

Another concern arises when UB trainings are poorly designed, which can further complicate progress on inclusion.  At a recent large I&D conference in the US where we presented an advanced-level workshop, based on prior input from the organisers, we learned that “most participants will be well-versed in UB as their organisations usually have already rolled out UB awareness trainings”.  However, what became evident in the session was that many held a misconception about UB … that it is something that is ‘found in others’ and seen in ‘their actions’ (the bias blind spot). There was a gap in the recognition that bias thinking occurs in everyone…not just ‘others’.

We would really like to nuance this a bit more because we have seen a LOT of different kinds of UB awareness training from all around the world, and the impact on behaviour highly depends on how it is designed, as true with any other kind of learning activity. Furthermore, the impact of learning activities highly depends on the structures in place to support the behavioural changes.

What we have found to be working is designing training sessions, organizational processes, technological solutions, and perceptions that mitigate unconscious bias by applying behavioural insights from anthropology, psychology, behavioural economics, and neuroscience in a holistic approach which is customized to the organisation. Here are some key insights from our experience on how:

  1. AVOID NEGATIVE BAGGAGE: Do not call the training ‘Unconscious Bias Awareness Training’ or for that matter ‘Inclusion & Diversity training’. Why not?  There is a risk this is going to trigger connotations / associations in the unconscious mind that activates counterproductive feelings, like
    1. ‘I am going to be fixed’ (anxiety) or
    2. ‘I’ll lose privilege, status, and power.’ (loss-aversion bias) or
    3. Now I’ll get them and show them how wrong they are.’ (revenge), etc.

Instead, why not motivate by designing a ‘title’ focusing on the ‘meaningful destination / outcome’, such as better performance, innovation, engagement, rather than focusing on the ‘means / method’ (diversity, inclusion, equality, etc.). This is called framing and is a very powerful behavioural driver.

  1. SHIFT THE CONTEXT: Why make the training mandatory when human beings in general don’t like to be told what to do (Romeo and Juliet effect)? Just slide it into the already existing leadership programs or other learning activities that are already considered by the leaders/employees as a valuable development investment. This way, you also avoid making I&D a ‘stand-alone’ or ‘add-on’ initiative, and it becomes an integrated part of ‘business’.
  1. ‘MIND THE GAP’ MOTIVATION: Design interventions that illustrate how we are biased in a specific situation that show people the gap between (1) their actual (biased) behaviour and (2) their self-perception (as professional, as fair), beliefs, and intentions (of being inclusive). This is highly motivational and will actually help the unconscious mind adjust the behaviour because we ‘feel the need’ to change behaviour instead of ‘rationally understanding’
  1. FOCUS ON THE WHOLE SYSTEM: Even more impactful in mitigating bias is re-designing the already existing organisational processes. If we accept that our thinking is prone to bias and faulty outcomes, then by extension we also need to accept that the systems and processes created by people may contain various elements of bias.  So, to help organisations mitigate bias, we need to not only work with our decision making but also with our decision making structures and tools in our workplaces and society.  Any bias mitigation intervention needs to have action focus towards the organisation as a whole system and address at all levels of individual, groups, leaders, and systems/processes. 

Having experimented with this approach systematically since 2011, we have seen how mitigating unconscious bias can be designed and done in a simple, non-intrusive way that does not rely upon conscious awareness and willpower to change our largely unconscious behaviours and decision-making. We call these techniques Inclusion Nudges and we have created a global community of sharing that has resulted in the Inclusion Nudges Guidebook now in the 2nd edition and containing more than 70 examples from organisations around the world.

We partner with multinationals, the public sector, and organisations (such as the UN and the World Economic Forum) to introduce this innovative concept in their I&D and culture change initiatives for greater inclusiveness.  This approach changes the discourse on I&D and unconscious bias.  It moves away from awareness alone, and instead is focused on working with our unconscious mind.  It does not require massive investments in UB awareness training, and it is very pragmatically focused on designing to impact decision making and behaviours. 

To succeed with this approach is it is extremely important not to call it Inclusion Nudges in the implementation – we should not ‘burden’ the employees with yet another term (and not make it a new buzz word). Remember, we should be working as change makers in a non-intrusive way to make this work. Like with ‘nudging’ in general, the effect can vanish if people are aware of ‘being nudged’.  Inclusion Nudges is a ‘work methodology term’ for you as a change maker in order to learn and apply the principles and concept in the work you do. 

And by the way, there is no ‘quick fix’. Inclusion Nudges need to be designed by or in collaboration with the organisation’s internal practitioners who bring their in-depth insights about their workplace culture, the context, behaviourial drivers, and the target group.

This is the mission we have set out on – to empower and enable as many people as possible to apply Inclusion Nudges as an integrated part of their daily work. We believe that by coming together and sharing examples of these simple interventions we make progress for more inclusive workplaces and societies. You can join the ‘Inclusion Nudges Global Movement of Sharing’ free of charge here.

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