Why Unconscious Bias Training Can Prove Ineffective

Why doesn’t unconscious bias training always work?

Evaluations for unconscious bias training have shown that for the most part, these programmes are ineffective, and in some cases even counterproductive. Unconscious bias training, as well as many other prevention programmes are designed based on the assumption that people are able, ready and willing to introspect, review themselves and change. This is a dangerous assumption to make.

Being ready for change is key to the success of any behaviour change programme, which means that either bringing people to a point of readiness must be included in the design of the programme, or readiness must be assessed before any intervention goes ahead.

Let’s take a look at two situations

Following the murder of George Floyd, the Influencer Sasha Exeter called upon individuals with a social media platform to take a stance for the Black Lives Matter movement, without naming anyone in particular.

Jessica Mulroney, a TV personality, did not take kindly to Sasha’s plea, and reacted strongly, ending the altercation with Sasha with the threat of a libel suit. All details can be found here on Elain Lui’s website.

Elaine Lui, celebrity expert and visiting research fellow at the university of Western Ontario, as well as Sasha Exeter herself, demonstrate very clearly and eloquently how this situation is an example of white privilege.

CBC, Jessica Mulroney’s employer, terminated her contract, and many brands and clients also ended their collaboration with immediate effect.

Considering her losses, and her husband’s ( he had to step down from his role with the same company), it is hard to ignore the business impact or at least the huge risk of being oblivious to unconscious bias.

Trevor Noah did a very strong analysis of the situation where a University of South California professor got suspended after one of his classes where he repeated a word which sounded like a racial slur:

In this video, the Daily Show anchor shows how to deal with unconscious bias and volatile misunderstandings with a racial tone. This requires self-awareness, the ability to apologise, empathise, listen, communicate, lead an awkward conversation, which in itself requires certain levels of self-worth and self-confidence.

How to address readiness for change in unconscious bias training

Now, let’s tie those two situations together. Having read about Jessica’s reactions, what do you think her levels of the above-mentioned skills are?

I will caveat the case study by saying that I am only using social media manifestations of behaviours and skills, and that these would of course not be the basis of any assessment in a real case. For the sake of the exercise, we will consider these to be genuine.

Let’s say that Jessica Mulroney’s employer decided to send Jessica on unconscious bias training instead. How do you think Jessica would have reacted? What impact do you think the training would have had on Jessica? Was Jessica able and willing to engage with the training? Or would she have sat at the back of the room, with her arms crossed, waiting for the time to pass? Or have been disruptive and contrarian, and a nightmare for the consultant?

Vital preparation for unconscious bias training

How about unconscious bias training starts by equipping the individual with the tools and the skills to be able to venture out of the comfort zone of what they know, in order for the learner to be receptive to new and different things?

In Jessica’s case, there are a number of items which are well known to Leadership Trust and where we could provide support:

  • The story starts with Sasha making a point, without calling out anyone specifically, that a pro-BLM position should be taken by those who have a social media platform. Jessica approached Sasha, which reveals some self-worth/insecurity issues. Personalised coaching can be a great place to start to look into the root causes.
  • Jessica displayed a huge lack of self-awareness, lack of empathy, possibly lack of kindness – where experiential learning and peer-to-peer feedback is very effective.
  • Jessica used a strategy we refer to as “Defend – Justify – Explain” about how and why she couldn’t do what Sasha was calling for. There are lots of reasons behind why people behave like this, which is always great to explore. To move individuals from this sterile position to constructive action is also an area of expertise of Leadership Trust.

I would also argue in this case that providing Jessica with some development with regards to giving and receiving feedback would be very beneficial.

Self-awareness is the key

Once Jessica has made progress on all of these aspects, then, and only then, would she be able to constructively receive any further training on unconscious bias. By definition, we are not aware of our unconscious bias, and it therefore requires for us to become aware of our biases (self-awareness) in order to be able to address them properly: the ultimate goal of unconscious bias training.

The conclusion is, therefore, that in order for it to be effective, unconscious bias training needs to take into consideration the level of development of individuals before it is applied, and this is also true for any behaviour change programme.

If you are looking to change any behaviour within your organisation, please get in touch.

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