Is it time to step away from unconscious bias training?

Is it time to step away from unconscious bias training?This past year some organisations have been bringing unconscious bias training up the priority list, whilst others have been dropping it like a stone. What do you believe is the right approach?

In our view, this shift in focus has been driven by two very different things:

  • Government cynicism about the value

The UK Government publicly announced it was phasing out unconscious bias training for civil servants. The written statement highlights that ‘there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups’.

  • Employees’ belief in the value

The Black Lives Matter movement, following on the heels of #MeToo has prompted a much greater awareness of bias and aggression in organisations with many staff and bosses clamouring for more information and education.

None of us in either HR or business can fail to appreciate that we are in the midst of a social movement.. our customers, our staff, our other stakeholders all demanding we pay attention to bias and workplace inclusion. But if we stop unconscious bias training in the workplace as suggested, what do we do to fill the gap if diversity and inclusion remains a top priority?

The government statement has left a lot of organisations floundering.

Where does this leave us?

The government statement went on to say, ‘there is no recognised way of assuring the quality of unconscious bias training’. Hilarious! Of all the outcomes of the report we found this statement hugely frustrating as if the training is bad, then find some good training, don’t just stop the training altogether. What a defeatist approach!

Or, if you are all about control and measurement, then relax and look around you as we are dealing with people here! Hugely complex people with hugely complex emotions and life experiences. Training, whether D&I, unconscious bias, microaggression or something else is just one opportunity to provide for our staff a bit of learning about bias and space to think and reflect.

“Every journey, no matter how far, starts with a single step”

And don’t we all sometimes just need time to think and reflect? Think about the people around you… who is struggling, who feels unable to bring their authentic self to work, who wants to say they feel offended but can’t find the right words, who feels invisible, who sees that their competence is always being challenged for no reason other than their gender or skin colour?

Let’s bring the humanity back into this debate and start to put our people, not government statements, to the top of the priority list.

Taking time to think and reflect

Perhaps this is a good opportunity, right now, to think and reflect? Here is one example of what might be used in an unconscious bias course to raise awareness of inclusion issues:

  • More than one in four LGBTQ+ respondents are not broadly out at work
  • 80% senior leaders are out
  • 58% of women are out
  • 32% of junior staff are out

 Only one-third of LGBTQ+ survey respondents below the level of senior manager reported being out with most of their colleagues. As one person explained, “Being authentic once you’ve made it is easier than being authentic when you haven’t.”

This data, taken from the McKinsey LGBTQ+ report, shows that coming out is especially challenging for junior employees.

Now how many of you would have assumed that most junior staff would feel comfortable being out?

Even if a statement like ‘being authentic once you’ve made it is easier than being authentic when you haven’t’ prompts a great group discussion about authenticity, how valuable would that be?

Authenticity is so critical in terms of Inclusion, even if it’s not strictly on topic in most unconscious bias courses, that any opportunity to discuss it is valuable. If you simply stop the training, you lose the opportunity for great discussions and learning.

What’s the way forward?

Treat adults like adults

Training on soft topics such as unconscious bias should not be about controlling outcomes, forcing a change in behaviour, lecturing about what is and is not acceptable. That kind of training will never provide opportunities for behavioural change. Instead, it will, as the government statement pointed out, just get backs up. Whatever happened to treating adults like adults? If we treat people with respect, acknowledge and accept that our employees have sophisticated thinking and reasoning skills, then we won’t feel a need to control them and lead them right to the end position. Instead, the trainers will be there to point them in the right direction, create a safe space for sharing and thereby facilitate delegates’ thinking and learning – even if that differs from our own.

Increasingly businesses are asking us for an opportunity for delegates to discuss and share ideas in a guided environment. They see free flowing discussion in a respectful environment the most critical part of this kind of training as organisations explore and develop their cultures.

Reframe expectations

Behaviours generally change over many years, decades even. So perhaps we could benefit from managing our expectations around this?

We can all make small adjustments quite quickly if we focus on what exactly we want to change (see articles on neuro plasticity) but with the complexity of our biases a one-off 60-minute training course just won’t cut it for significant ongoing behavioural change. It will take years of hard work and concerted effort by most of us to change our ingrained behaviours, so any training needs to be accompanied by longer-term goals and strategies.

Debunk the myths

The science behind unconscious bias explains why our brains sift, sort, exclude or include information, this is critical in understanding why everyone is biased. It’s not just nasty, ill-educated dinosaurs who have biases whilst everyone else walks round bias free!

Given the way our brains operate to protect us, we all have biases, thousands of them in fact and being biased is not therefore a reflection of being a good or bad person. Good people generally have as many biases as ‘bad’ people so let’s lose the judgement! It’s so important to debunk this myth.

For our trainers at Jaluch, what unconscious bias training is about is raising awareness, educating, debunking myths, creating an opportunity and safe space for delegates to share their experiences whilst others listen respectfully. This is how you create strategies for long-lasting change.

Accept you can’t force learning

The government advocates for control of training, including content, style of delivery, measurement of outcomes etc. but every good trainer knows that the same course can be delivered multiple times and each time have a different outcome. The reason for this is that it only takes one toxic or narcissistic person in a group to derail training or one exceptionally educated or experienced group to take the training to a whole new level, with every other possible variation in between.

You cannot force learning as every single course is different… different energy, different discussions, different learning and different outcomes – all experienced trainers know this.

So, is it really time to step away from unconscious bias training?

If leaders want to go further than is required by existing legislation to both reduce risk, but more critically, achieve optimal performance, then we don’t believe that unconscious bias training should be stopped altogether as the government suggests.

Instead, leaders need to reframe their expectations and view training as one small, but important part of the very long journey of self-understanding and self-development that employees are taken on. Focus on having open conversations, recognising what the issues are and then implementing meaningful changes.

It’s a long journey – but let’s just keeping taking small steps towards our end goal!

How we can help

Jaluch provides a whole host of solutions around unconscious bias, microaggression or your wider diversity and inclusion strategy. We are always happy to talk ideas through.

  • Diversity Strategy development or advice including understanding how Personal Accountability is an essential part of any D&I strategy
  • Dealing with toxic culture/behaviours
  • Data gathering (surveys to assess employee engagement and motivation)
  • Workshops or training sessions (classroom or online)
  • E-learning materials
  • Pre-prepared training materials for you to deliver your own course
  • Train the trainer
  • One to one coaching
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