Unconscious Bias - There's No Quick Fix

Kirstie Kelly, 15 May 2017

There is a body of evidence that suggests that unconscious bias (UB) training alone doesn’t work. Organisations invest with the best of intentions but its failing lies in the fact that organisations can’t measure it. They can’t measure the ‘before and after’ and therefore levels of success. And because they can’t measure that, they can’t put in place the right interventions to bring about positive change.

Tinna Nielsen and Lisa Kepinski write that business is addicted to quick fixes on big challenges and that “the turn has come to unconscious bias awareness training as the solution for fixing inequality, discrimination, and poor decision-making”. Harsh maybe, but this is fair in my opinion because it focuses the lens onto the investment versus results equation.

If we are unable to find a way to solve this return-on-investment conundrum then I fear an increase in apathy for unconscious bias training that will damage our aspirations to develop culturally inclusive workplaces.

Evidencing poor decision making can demonstrate that bias exists and can be used as illustration in unconscious bias training - but is that really going to shift behaviour? This piece by Valentina Zyra for Forbes makes exactly that point. She “failed this test on racism and sexism” but now what?

Valentina’s article describes a range of insightful exercises that follow but how much more powerful would it be if she and her employer were in the position to measure change and drive continuous improvement? As Christine Comaford, also writing for Forbes said about her experience of unconscious bias training

It raised awareness of people’s differences but didn’t provide behavioural change strategies

Let’s not give up on unconscious bias training yet because there are two big opportunities to make it more effective.

1. Make it more human

I’m not knocking unconscious bias and inclusive leadership training as a concept. We use thoughtfully designed and contextualised training, basing the content around workplace situations to great value with clients who want to motivate employees to engage in new behaviours that complement and accelerate other D&I efforts. It’s also useful in helping to build the business case for D&I investment and to surface its reality and ambitions.

Time and time again we read reports that UB training is proven to have limited impact - in fact, a school of thought suggests that raising awareness of our biases can perpetuate the problems rather than changing peoples’ behaviour. We need to be careful to strike a balance that limits a defensive attitude towards unconscious bias, while communicating the importance of managing bias

‘Hold up the mirror’ is a programme we use that explores the impact of bias in organisations. It examines and dissects the issues that people routinely face in the workplace - and leaders’ roles in countering them.

The session explores behaviours and conditions that create bias at an individual, group and organisational level. It includes exercises to highlight how we make assumptions and where our biases may play out for example looking at in/out groups, micro-inequities, and the link to trust.

Through this exercise unconscious bias becomes more human. It’s not a report or training, it fosters a sense of team unity and common purpose – ‘we are all in this together’ mentality as opposed to ‘them and us’ amongst the participants.

2. Use data to measure actual learning (from training) and behaviour change

So few organisations have successfully measured the impact from their learning interventions, let alone shifted the dial when it comes to actual translation into action by their team. Of course – programmes like sales and customer service training can be correlated directly with sales performance or NPS Scoring, but the measuring the impact of unconscious bias training to evidence the shift remains hugely challenging.

As is the case with any effective training, relevant organisational context should be incorporated into content design with the dexterity in delivery to contextualise the subject matter for the audience – to resonate and engage. However, to deliver effective, impactful unconscious bias training we have to solve the ROI conundrum in a way which enables us to evidence retention of knowledge and learning.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a key role here. Through a smart combination of gamification and intelligent use of data, it’s possible to evidence the shift we’re searching for. Here’s why: We know that for an employee to act upon or improve as a result of training, they must first learn and retain what they have been trained. Evidence shows, on average, employees learn and retain less than half of what their employers train them on - and that what is actually learned differs randomly from employee to employee.

Post training and through an ‘intelligent’ combination of administering a small number of questions to the employee; and by varying the quantum and subject matter of those questions based on each individual’s past responses, we can build a picture of knowledge gaps and tailor a personalised approach to on-going assessment to retain learning.

Unconscious bias training should be designed to alter attitude and behaviour. As far as measuring behaviour change is concerned, there are mechanisms such as the Kirkpatrick model (the benchmark for training effectiveness) that can help. Through incorporating analytics, behaviour change can be measured i.e. using a control group to directly compare those trained, with those not trained, to isolate and quantify the impact.

We can identify, measure and track ‘outcomes’ achieved as a result of training delivered, which are tailored to the organisation but which can include for example measurement of the increase in diversity of hires and promotions, the increase in team diversity, as well as business performance improvements driven from a more diverse workforce, teams or individuals.

There really is no quick fix for unconscious bias but there is a way to make it successful. Gently, securely and unobtrusively assessing an individual’s retention of information, guarantees that every employee learns what they were trained and closes this costly knowledge gap, providing huge scope for enterprise performance improvement, whenever employees touch the process. Combining this with data analytics to measure action and behaviour change completes the ROI equation.

This provides us with a golden opportunity to transform unconscious bias awareness training into a driver for embedding and sustaining inclusion to achieve superior business performance and competitive advantage.

To find out more about using technology and data to improve D&I outcomes please get in touch.

About the author

Kirstie Kelly Diversity and inclusion practice lead

Kirstie Kelly

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