Ask the Expert: Can unconscious bias training change behaviour?
Corporate trainer and coach Dr Karla Benske provides some clarity and sets expectations with regards to the effectiveness of Unconscious Bias training
“There seems to be an on-going debate about the effectiveness of Unconscious Bias training in the workplace. What do you make of a recent evaluation report that states that Unconscious Bias training does not change behaviour?”
In December last year, there was indeed a flurry of news articles on the effectiveness of unconscious bias training; mainly based on an analysis of implicit association training published in 2019, a research report conducted on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) first published in 2018, and triggered by the news that unconscious bias training was ‘scrapped’ for civil servants.
Neither of the two research reports recommends to stop the training and/or the efforts in mitigating the impact of our biases. In my view, they both offer invaluable insights and, more importantly, state that more research into all aspects of bias is needed. The EHRC report also recommends to combine unconscious bias training with targeted organisational strategies to implement change in relation to equality and diversity as a whole.
So what does that mean for unconscious bias training?
I find it means that we, as providers of unconscious bias training, must manage expectations better and be absolutely clear about what can be achieved, based on a one-off training session. Unconscious bias training is the first step in mitigating the impact of unconscious and conscious bias. Its main aim is to raise awareness about how our biases come about in the first place, how they influence our decision making and what initial measures we can apply to mitigate their impact. There is no one-size fits all recipe to minimise the impact of bias. The training offers some general suggestions as to what can be done, but essentially, it is the task of the organisation to take responsibility and design their own practices to address bias.
Will a training session change the behaviour of individuals? No, it will not. For instance, we all know how difficult it is to create a new habit, or in other words, change our behaviour. It takes weeks of regular practice, the right mindset, resilience and determination to stick with our goal. More often than not, we fail to change our behaviour for good. When it comes to mitigating the impact of unconscious bias, the challenge is the same. On an individual level, once we are made aware of our biases and their impact, we need to practice, develop the right mindset, resilience and determination to keep on trying in order to change. The most essential part of our individual development is that we must want to change, because only then are we motivated to keep on trying. Change of behaviour cannot be forced on individuals per se. Yes, of course there are times when we are forced to change our behaviour, often through fear (e.g. of losing our job, of repercussions, of a negative image), but this rarely is sustainable. True change requires a positive emotional investment by the individual and the leadership of the organisation.
The same rigour applies to any organisational setting. Any intervention in relation to unconscious bias, inclusion and diversity requires a long-term strategy, investment and willingness to change. This needs to be underpinned by creating the right context and environment that enables individuals, teams and leaders to address the challenges and barriers that hinder progress and the mitigation of bias. Moreover, the progress should be evaluated regularly to work out what works and what does not in order to create space for adjusting the measures accordingly.
Another inconvenient truth about our biases is that the work to mitigate their impact never finishes. Reducing the impact of our biases requires a continuous commitment to address bias, exclusion and inequality. It has to be built into the fabric of day-to-day practices and processes. The good news is that there are ways and means that we can use to mitigate the impact of bias. Yes, we will never eradicate it, because it is the way our brain analyses information (consciously and unconsciously), but we can train ourselves to become more aware and pay more attention to how we process information and interact with each other. I strongly believe, that we should never use the way our brains work as an excuse to do nothing about our biases.
Where does the responsibility lie?
It lies with both the individual and the organisation. Only together can meaningful change be achieved. A simple tick-box exercise of asking employees to complete unconscious bias training does not suffice. Follow-up and the development of a long-term strategy to address bias are essential, if we are serious about reducing bias. Any such strategy needs to be closely linked to the organisation’s values and mission, with clear guidance and communication as to what happens when there is unacceptable behaviour. The EHRC report has a range of recommendations that can serve as a starting point for developing such a strategy.
So, is there any point of participating in unconscious bias training?
In my view, yes, there is. Training is always an important first step in achieving change. A one-off training session in itself does not bring about learning and/or behavioural change, but it draws attention to a specific area, raises awareness, offers insights and suggestions on what to do next. Learning is a process that takes time and effort. One way to ensure that the time invested in training is not wasted is by offering additional support, such as coaching and/or mentoring of individuals and teams thereby creating an environment that enables and rewards the desired behaviour. This, combined with an organisational approach that includes the review and assessment of existing systems, processes and policies, identifying any shortfalls, gaps and ways to minimise the impact of bias will make any training cost-effective.
BBC News (2020) ‘’Unconscious bias training’ to be scrapped by ministers’, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-55309923 , accessed on 01/02/2021.
Forscher, Patrick et al (2019) ‘A Meta-Analysis of Change in Implicit Bias’, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(3), 522–559. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000160 , accessed on 01/02/2021.
Atewologun, Doyin et al (2018) ‘Unconscious Bias Training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness’, Equality and Human Rights Commission. Available at: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-report-113-unconcious-bais-training-an-assessment-of-the-evidence-for-effectiveness-pdf.pdf , accessed on 01/02/2021.