INSIGHTS: DIFFERENCE

Disrupting Unconscious Bias: Recognising Evidence Based Cultural Intelligence and Inclusion

Unconscious Bias (UB) Awareness workshops have been recommended as a panacea to the Diversity and Inclusion concerns. However, at Above Difference we’d like to offer you an alternative.

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“One theory is that if training tells us we’re all biased, we might no longer think we need to make an effort or that making an effort will make a difference. Afterwards, a participant might come away with a sense of relief: they’ve been shown that their bias isn’t really their fault at all. The eagerness to label all bias as unconscious could allow us to evade responsibility for the harm it causes.”

In December 2020, unconscious bias training was scrapped for civil servants in England because ministers said it does not work.

The government followed the data which says there is no evidence that it changes attitudes. It also urged other public sector employers to end this type of training.1

Sadly, we see instances of bias everywhere. How it manifests itself and the impact is important but expecting people to be aware of their unconscious and mitigate themselves, is not, actually, possible.

Take this recently updated academic paper which aggregates into one, 492 studies on the matter, with nearly 90-thousand participants.

It concludes: We found that implicit measures can be changed, but effects are often relatively weak… Procedures changed explicit measures less consistently and to a smaller degree than implicit measures and generally produced trivial changes in behaviour … Our findings suggest that changes in implicit measures are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit measures or behaviour.2

So, even if weak changes in implicit bias occur, they do not mediate downstream changes in explicit bias or behaviour, and if they did, they are trivial in nature. The recommendation from the author of the report: Do not try to change implicit bias… Instead focus on working around it. Target other inter group outcomes and teach folks to create procedural changes that prevent the influence of hidden biases.3

Add to this, the work of Alexandra Kalev, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University who found that not only that bad training doesn’t work, but that it can be counterproductive, so the targets set to improve diversity in leadership can, in fact, be reversed! She found that efforts to get people to suppress their stereotypes can actually work to reinforce them. Often, any positive change is weak and short term.

“One theory is that if training tells us we’re all biased, we might no longer think we need to make an effort or that making an effort will make a difference. Afterwards, a participant might come away with a sense of relief: they’ve been shown that their bias isn’t really their fault at all. The eagerness to label all bias as unconscious could allow us to evade responsibility for the harm it causes.

And many businesses might see the training as a complete solution to their discrimination problems: a quick fix. But although unconscious bias training opens the door to fruitful conversations about bias, by itself it won’t make you or your company any less biased than you were before.”4

Face-to-face UB courses, whilst good at helping people realise UB exists and how it manifests itself, it doesn’t focus enough about impact and still expects people to mitigate themselves and makes no mention of the requirement of processes and structures to change in order to assist with mitigation.

A report by the EHRC also points to raising awareness being useful – as I say, helping people realise what UB is part of the knowledge piece to open the conversation – but evidence for behaviour change is weak.5

And yet another report, the ‘Diversity management that works’ review found that while training did increase awareness of issues such as unconscious bias, evidence of attitude and behavioural change among staff as a result of the training was less conclusive.6

Daniel Kahneman, the “father of heuristics” says it’s extremely difficult to catch yourself doing something unconsciously. When asked why you made a decision, you’ll convince yourself of a valid reason, when in reality your unconscious forced you to come to a conclusion based on your bias and short-cutting of information, a cerebral process of which you’re completely unaware. And yet the conscious decision-making process, which you do control, is “who you think you are”.7

Report after report after report shows, the repeated suggestion that we can, by being aware, mitigate our own unconscious bias is not correct. We must stop saying and teaching that. We need to put less store by the training and more by the overall structures and processes we need to create, implement and enforce to mitigate it. We must also put more effort into creating a culture of feedback where it’s ok to call it out other’s bias because a diversity of staff can see and feel it more clearly than we’d ever be able to in ourselves, and for the recipient of that feedback not to be defensive about it.

And, allow people who can see and feel them, to call out issues, and don’t then vilify them for it. (Image: The ‘Problem’ Woman of Colour in the Workplace)8

Above Difference would suggest you consider the most academically robust approach in helping with this mitigation, Cultural Intelligence (CQ). CQ is made up of four capabilities which when built on each other allow you to succeed in working and relating effectively with people who are different from you.

The first capability CQ Drive, your motivation to enter into work and personal situations with those different from you, can be hindered by your bias, conscious and unconscious, so being able to recognise the element of discomfort in yourself, challenge this and use the tools of intrinsic, extrinsic motivation as well as calling upon your self-efficacy, is vital. A CQ assessment helps you pinpoint where you are on this scale and that enables you to improve it.

CQ Knowledge, the second capability, helps you tackle bias by encouraging you to focus on growing what you know about those different from you.

The third capability, CQ Strategy is especially crucial when dealing with UB. It requires you to stop, think about what you’re thinking about and stereotype you might be holding, and check your assumptions. It asks you to be hugely self-aware. It means you plan before executing any behaviour in a situation with those who are different from you. As part of CQ Strategy we would agree you should put in place procedural changes that prevent the influence of hidden biases, as Professor Lai suggests.

Those high in the fourth capability CQ Action, have a broad repertoire of thoughtful behaviours to call upon, which means they’re less likely to act in a biased way.

Above Difference has, at its core, a fundamental belief, that an individual’s ability to decisively and intentionally create inclusive workplace cultures, can be developed, so diversity is recognised as an organisation’s greatest asset and all cultures are valued and respected. And that’s a very conscious credo.