Many organizations are rushing into unconscious bias training, also known as implicit or cognitive bias training. This “check the box” approach typically results in poorly planned and delivered learning experiences, which can lead to an unanticipated backlash against the material. If done well, unconscious bias training can be positively transformative; if not done well, the dysfunctional consequences can elicit negative reactions such as guilt, unrealized rising expectations, demoralization or pain. Before undertaking unconscious bias training, leadership must understand the strategic purpose of this initiative and, more specifically, what they hope to achieve.
Unconscious bias training is about critical thinking and decision making. As a result of the training, leaders, managers and individual contributors should be able to make better and more rational decisions. These decisions should focus not only on career-related topics — such as the role of unconscious bias in the selection, development, retention and promotion of underrepresented groups — but also on business practices and processes related to marketing, investment decisions, innovation, patient care/customer relations and all situations where one’s implicit bias may result in poor business decisions. The business case for the training is not just about “fixing people” but about creating or refining processes that ultimately impact profitability.
Most organizations do not recognize how much money they are losing, whether directly or through missed opportunity, due to the unseen forces of unconscious bias at work. For example, consider the following true story: A major venture capitalist, investing millions of dollars on new medical ventures, realized they needed unconscious bias training after they rejected a product designed for (and pitched by) females that was subsequently accepted at another firm, eventually becoming highly profitable. As part of the venture capitalist’s vetting process, they interviewed the CEO and lead scientist of every organization making a pitch for funding. They came to realize that due to the bias of their mostly white male interviewers, they were not doing as much due diligence when those making a pitch were older white males, and thus were investing in projects that did not become profitable. Conversely, they missed out on a major investment because they hesitated to invest in an opportunity when those making the pitch were younger females.
But not all unconscious bias training programs are created equal. Here is a look at what differentiates the good from the not-so-good.
12 Factors for Success
The following factors have proven to enhance the success of unconscious bias programs.
No. 1: Set realistic expectations. Do not over promise and under deliver. Raising expectations that unconscious bias training will eliminate all bias would be disingenuous. The goal is to be conscious of our biases and blind spots that impact our judgments and decisions.
No. 2: Provide appropriate time for the training. It has taken a lifetime to develop our biases; they cannot be overcome in a two-hour session. Ideally, several short sessions or one full day should be the minimum.
No. 3: Start at the top. Training to mitigate bias must be driven from executive leadership who will model the behavioral and procedural changes needed. Most executives will not come to this awareness easily. A highly effective program for executives is an intensive, transformational experience. Ideally, the executive team should be willing to commit two days to an executive retreat that focuses on self-discovery at a very profound level. In such a program, executives can develop both the vision and the practical steps they are committed to take as leaders.
No. 4: Incorporate unconscious bias assessment tools, such as the one provided by Project Implicit. This tool helps uncover hidden biases on many criteria including race, gender, disabilities and age. Facilitators must also know the pitfalls of this test and the challenges associated with how people interpret their results.
No. 5: Be judicious in selecting the right facilitator. Do not select someone simply because they took a course on diversity, see this topic as “their passion” or have personally experienced bias. Trainers should be highly qualified and well-versed in the social psychology of attitude formation, be excellent and empathetic facilitators, and have a nonthreatening and inclusive style that avoids guilt trips.
No. 6: Provide the training in-person. This topic requires interpersonal interaction, trust and the opportunity for people to meet in a safe environment. E-learning is not appropriate as the primary means of delivering unconscious bias training. While it may seem cost effective, there will be little measurable change in behavior.
No. 7: Focus on actual work-related scenarios. Unconscious bias training is most effective when focused on specific real situations such as reviewing résumés, conducting interviews, responding to customers, meeting behavior, interrupting, etc. To ensure authenticity, case studies and scenarios derived from the organization should be incorporated into the program. (Don’t forget the importance of carefully editing these case studies so no one can identify any of the characters in the scenario.) It is perfectly OK to identify the diversity characteristics of those in the case or to use fake first names. For example, an unconscious bias program for a major newspaper may focus on how reporters select whom to interview and whether they use the same questions for males or females. A program for a hospital may focus on how the race or ethnicity of a patient impacts the types of tests and medications that are prescribed by doctors. As part of any program, address the micromessaging at work and have participants discuss micro-inequities and micro-affirmations and the words, phrases, symbols, jokes and other symbolic representations of their group that they find offensive and why.
No. 8: Customize the program to address the types of unconscious bias and their mitigation most likely to occur at work. There are hundreds of types of unconscious bias; only those most relevant to the organization should be selected to focus on. In some programs proximity bias is a critical factor, while in others it is of little importance. Always provide recommendations on how to mitigate the bias in the event that the participants cannot think of any on their own. Many organizations invest a significant amount of time and resources to identify and audit the types of unconscious bias that exist in their organization prior to designing a training solution. Issues around in-group favoritism and how it operates in the organization must be addressed as well. Research shows that a lack of diversity creates “group think” while diverse viewpoints result in more creativity and innovation.
No. 9: Build measurable and meaningful skills and actions for success. Learning about our blind spots and hidden biases is not sufficient. Successful training must also help the participants identify and build skills to overcome these biases. There must be an expectation that there will be measurable behavioral changes and that those in the training will support each other in implementing these changes. An individual and organizational action plan process needs to be incorporated into any program hoping to overcome unconscious bias. More on that shortly.
No. 10: Create incentives for change. Tie bonuses and promotions to measured improvement in inclusion. One client created an incentive program that involved a $100 reward for the best new idea promoting inclusion every month alongside a mention in the monthly internal newsletter. This $1,200 a year program paid off exponentially in practical innovations and in creating an atmosphere of engagement.
No. 11: Integrate the organization’s criteria of competencies directly into the goals of the program. The business case for training should be linked to the organization’s mission statement and the criteria the organization uses to measure the competencies for success. Participants should be encouraged to identify actions they can put into their development plans for their yearly review.
No. 12: Embed sustainable processes in the training. Follow-up training, coaching and gentle reminders, often called “nudges,” should be implemented to continue to reinforce the training and highlight those who have made the greatest contribution to inclusion for the month or quarter. Weekly or monthly e-learning programs can focus on specific topics such as ageism, sexual orientation, bullying, neurodiversity, racism and other topics important to the organization. A monthly newsletter recognizing the top individual and group contributions to inclusion will keep the topic alive. Metrics that demonstrate changes in behavior or processes, such as the increase in the percentages of underrepresented candidates selected for development programs, should be a part of a follow-up initiative that demonstrates the organization’s commitment to taking action.
Individual and Organizational Action Planning
For training to be most effective and sustainable, during the program, participants should create personal action plans that focus on behavioral changes they would like to implement regarding all work-related decisions. A personal action-planning process creates a customized road map for participants to address unconscious bias and gain traction for creating sustainable practices. It is through the practice of the new skills developed during the program and their resulting action plans that participants will alter the future. Near the conclusion of the training, the participants should share their action plans in priority order and meet with others who have similar plans who will serve as peer coaches to sustain the implementation of the actions. When participants commit to individual actions within peer coaching groups, sustainability increases.
Below is a sample of action plans one executive team committed to based on their unconscious bias program:
- Challenge people to drive diversity when considering candidates for succession planning purposes.
- Look beyond the usual people for stretch assignments.
- Identify “devil’s advocates” to review my ideas to detect unconscious bias.
- Identify patterns of bias in my behaviors and in others.
- Be aware of micro-inequities and negative micromessaging.
- Challenge my first thoughts and be mindful of when I feel stressed and hurried.
- Challenge what kind of opportunities exist for females to rise to the director level.
- Rotate persons into leadership roles.
- Look at teams: Rank their level of diversity; call it out and develop within those that have low diversity.
- Review job announcements and specifications and redo them if necessary.
- For our recruiting processes: nameless résumés, recruit in more diverse colleges, more mentoring, teach unconscious bias awareness to my team, increase diversity of recruitment team.
- Move toward more of a sponsorship than a mentorship model for those women who can be promoted.
- Consciously interact with more people not in my image or likeness.
In addition to individual action plans, when training leaders of an organization, an organizational action planning process should be simultaneously introduced and conducted. This process has resulted in many measurable organizational outcomes, including larger pools of diverse qualified candidates through innovative outreach initiatives; increased creativity and innovation across various departments; lower turnover rates and longer retention rates; greater equity in salaries for women and other underrepresented groups; higher engagement scores noted internally and externally via social media; and more.
Additional outcomes we’ve seen come out of this process include increased memberships in employee resource groups, the creation of an international employee ERG and greater contributions of ERGs to the bottom line. Additionally, there’s been involvement of allies in ERGs, with managers and leaders committing to attend ERG groups different from their own backgrounds.
Companies have also seen increased profits in various sectors serving diverse populations in product sales and services, along with the creation of formal coaching and sponsorship programs with outreach to all. Designated phone lines where comments can be confidentially left about a particular policy or occurrence have been another result.
All of these metrics are directly related to the company’s competitiveness. Creating and sustaining actions, policies and mindsets that affect the above noted tangibles is an achievable goal.
Change Starts Now
Unconscious bias is insidious and ubiquitous. It demoralizes, inhibits and impacts people’s sense of belonging.
Well-intentioned organizations that attempt to change employees’ biases and behaviors with a poorly designed and delivered program, aiming to change organizational processes that have been ingrained in their culture over time, will be doing more harm than good. They will lose some of their best talent to their more inclusive competitors, who will benefit from the creativity, innovation and profitability that is the hallmark of diversity and the result of impactful and sustainable training and organizational transformation.