TalentLearning & DevelopmentDoes unconscious bias training even work?

Does unconscious bias training even work?

Unconscious bias training has become a corporate buzz-concept in recent years, as organisations are beginning to recognise the growing importance of creating an inclusive culture. However, does this training even work? Or is it just the first step in what should be a consistent, daily effort?

A few weeks ago, the Financial Times published a letter from a reader which accused the publication of having too few non-white writers or leaders. In her response, Associate Editor & Business columnist, Pilita Clark, spoke about how a lack of diversity is still a prevalent issue for many organisations. In order to tackle this, the vast majority resort to providing cookie-cutter training sessions for their employees.

“Hauling employees in for a bout of training to show they harbour blind spots about the differences between men and women or black and white workers has become a go-to fix on the equality front…” But the question still remains: how effective is it in changing organisational attitudes and behaviours?

Formal, instructor-led bias training is booming business. It’s estimated that US companies spent $8bn last year on diversity training. CEO of unconscious bias training provider Paradigm Joelle Emerson stated in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article that “96% of participants leave intending to engage in behaviors to reduce bias”.

Does this intent mirror action? It’s all well and good if employees want to be more inclusive, but are training courses quickly forgotten?

According to Fiona Young, Diversity and Inclusion Director (Content) at Hive Learning, “Unconscious bias training is proven to be one of the least effective ways to create a more inclusive culture.” Indeed, experimental research has in fact claimed that unconscious bias training can even end up condoning stereotypes, rather than eliminating them. She continues, saying “It’s great that so many organisations now prioritise diversity, but they have to actually make sure that they focus on putting change into action.”

This, however, is doubtful at best. In her column, Clark writes: “There is little evidence it changes behaviour and some showing it can backfire…”. This is seconded by John Amaechi, a psychologist and organisational consultant, who has gone as far as saying that “given the continued negative experiences of so many in the workplace resulting from the behaviours we see from colleagues and managers, unconscious bias training is simply a way that organisations can achieve a level of plausible deniability”.

So, how can companies implement genuine change? To help tackle the issue, Hive Learning have created Kaleidoscope, the world’s first diversity inclusion programme which is designed to turn unconscious bias into conscious action. Their group-based learning platform, a mobile-first toolkit, helps reinforce lessons learnt during unconscious bias training with bite-sized pieces of content.

This content is then amplified through daily nudges, notifications and reminders to remind people to take action on what they’ve learnt. The problem currently, according to Young, is that “too often organisations don’t prioritise actually helping their people understand what it truly means to be inclusive or to practice inclusion as they go about their job.”

In her opinion, it’s as much about a change in mindset as anything else: “Organisations should shift their focus so they don’t purely think about process, but also about people – with the ultimate aim of helping everyone put change into action today.” Like achieving anything in life, creating an inclusive culture won’t happen unless concerted efforts are made each day; it’s not simply about providing information.

Traditional unconscious bias training, with its emphasis on raising awareness, might have a part to play in creating a more inclusive culture. However, this alone will do little to create genuine, lasting, change.  For lessons learnt from training not to be simply forgotten, employees need actionable recommendations on a daily basis.

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