The Hidden Upside of Bias Training

Have you ever found yourself listening to someone who has just said, or is about to say, something that is insulting – even if unintentionally? Has that person ever been you? If so, chances are an unconscious element is behind the prejudice. The good news is that it’s normal, the bad news is you might still get caught up in prejudice.

I am not racistHarvard’s now famous (or infamous) Implicit Association Test has become a popular tool to reveal how, even with the best of intentions, we hold prejudices that we are unaware of. If you have not tried it, the self-test is here.

To argue that the IAT is actually a reliable diagnostic of your personal unconscious bias would be a step too far. Not only is it self-assessed, if you do it more than a couple of times, you will notice your scores change. However, it does reveal some of the ways people can be influenced by their surroundings and culture. It’s perfectly normal, for example, for men to carry sexist assumptions about masculinity as well as femininity, and vice versa.  We often apply prejudices unconsciously to ourselves as well as others.

Fortunately, just because we carry some unconscious biases does not mean we are intentionally racist or sexist etc.  Nor does this excuse us from not caring about our actions toward others. And it’s the actions rather than the thoughts that I am most interested in working with. Chances are you might be acting biased without realising it. If so, there are simple things you can do to reduce the tendency to act in an unconcsiously biased way, see my previous blog for ways to ACT to reduce bias.

I’d now like to look at another way we can work to reduce potential biases, that is:

Context matters! And we must leverage that on unconscious bias trainings and in the workplace.

Of course, one of the challenges we have when working with the unconscious elements of our bias is that the unconscious is very difficult to pin down. Beyond that universal challenge, our tendency to act on our prejudices varies moment to moment and is contextual. People are rarely bigoted all the time, hence the expression, “I am not racist, one of my best friends is ‘xxx’…” Even self-confessed bigots can find themselves unresponsive to their own bias and think of reasons why some people or situations are exempt from their rules and assumptions about others.  You may hear statements like:

Oh, but you don’t count as <insert minority status here>…

And they will act with less bias toward them. Context matters.

Conversely, some situations are more likely to promote our biases than others. These moments are usually situations where we feel threatened, uncomfortable, or enter an unfamiliar environment. Especially when the external environment appears unsafe, our biases can skyrocket – which is why we might be more biased while driving when there is a “near miss” or wayward driver, rather than when we are at work with colleagues.

So what are the equivalents of being caught by “prejudices while driving” in the workplace?  People tend to cling to their biases in situations that are stressful to them – which is often the very moment that the biases need to take a backseat. At work, this means we have to be more wary of bias when some one joins the team or when we are hiring. The unconscious elements of bias can also increase when the stakes get higher and there is pressure on a situation. These can include: critical meetings; job interviews; moments when products or plans haven’t worked as planned; or when there is a significant change in the market.

Fortunately, most effective workplaces already employ an effective unconscious bias reducer – a focus on common goals. The greater the need for cooperation toward a common goal, the more likely people are to focus on effective behaviours rather than assumed prejudices. While these common goals do not necessarily eradicate bias, they can bring people together in ways that day-to-day life does not. This may also explain why succesful companies have more diverse leaders – they have a relentless focus on goals.

People are also social beings and public environments can encourage us to take more responsiblity for our actions. This may also account for the “road-rage” bias that arises for people who are otherwise friendly at work – chances are that the commuter is not going to see them again!  Accountability and responsibility cannot be ignored when looking to create a more inclusive culture.

Finally, the significant factor that reduces bias is exposure to people different from oneself. This can also happen easily at work and being in more diverse environments has been shown to reduce people’s prejudices.  Provided people actually spend time with people they perceive as different to themselves, diversity is one of the biggest mitigators of bias. This is not the same as moving to a new country where one lives amongst fellow ex-pats, it also requires interacting with people seen as “different.”

And this one of the secondary upsides to unconscious bias training. While the tools and processes that people and companies adopt can reduce people acting on bias, so too does spending time with different people working on a tricky subject.

Unconscious bias training can provide such an opportunity: It is both an engaging and interesting topic as well as being a tricky and provocative one.

Having people come together and learn more about other people’s points of view can help increase empathy as well as dispel the armour of prejudice that we all bring to situations that are new to us. It is therefore critical that such sessions are friendly, fun and voluntary.  In fact, it has been shown that compulsory bias training can actually backfire.

With this in mind, it is crucial that unconscious bias training section for sharing personal experience within a diverse group of invited participants in order to gain the most  successful outcomes of the training. Therefore, when looking to build an effective unconscious bias intervention, ensure to include the following three things:

  1. Diverse and willing attendees with time built-in to share personal experience and stories in a meaningful way
  2. Simple tools that are not too mentally taxing and are easy to implement
  3. Back it up with internal processes that help nudge people away from their implicit biases

So while it might be tenuous to think we can completely understand, let alone eradicate our unconscious biases, we can find ways of overcoming some of the prejudices that keep people unnecessarily separate from one another. Unconscious bias training at work can do that. In my own experience, it has been listening to views of people from different backgrounds to myself that has increased my willingness to not only understand, but engage with people of different backgrounds to me. This I believe is a secondary but crucial element to effective unconscious bias training.

I would love to hear your thoughts and any experiences you have of unconscious bias training in the comments below.


ACT to Mitigate Unconscious Bias


Confirmation Bias

2017, like many recent years, has seen events, both political and environmental, produce a flurry of polarising opinions, interpretations and platforms – many of which seem beyond comprehension to one side or another. In the midst of this, both organisations and governments are looking hard at how they can bring people together across these seemingly impassable divides.

To this end, I have spent nearly all of this year working with clients to help them create a more inclusive and effective culture.  While employers may wish their workplace to exist in a perfect bubble, people inevitably bring their biases and prejudices to work.  Unfortunately, sometimes these biases can consciously, and unconsciously, put up barriers to communication and working effectively together – or in the case of AppleWatch, completely miss a desirable feature for a product.

So what can be done? For about 15 years, I have been supporting people to work with their biases and how they may unconsciously stifle innovation and make working together difficult. While unconscious biases cannot be removed, some of their negative effects can be reduced by using some simple techniques. Below is an overview of the approach I have developed after working on and researching this subject for some time – see this article I wrote in 2016.

I hope you find some tips for yourself and leading your teams.

The irony is, you may not notice what your unconscious is thinking – and that is the point, you can’t consciously know your unconscious. The thing is, trying to “think differently” doesn’t help, you must ACT to mitigate unconscious bias!

And when I say ACT I mean:

  • ARTICULATE  an alternative point of view
  • CREATE COMMONALITY – establish common ground and goals
  • TEST IT – ask for more information to test your ideas

And the pneumonic is key: You must take ACTion and actually DO things that reduce your bias, not just think you should be open-minded. Below are some typical situations with simple suggestions of things you can do to get over some suspected biases. They have been shown to help people work more effectively with colleagues and clients, in interviews and in meetings. They are examples which encourage ACTion rather than thought as the main tool to mitigate bias:

1) Articulate Alternative POV:

We often make judgements about people we spend less time with. This show up a lot with new joiners and people in other departments/teams. To apply this approach, begin by asking:

  • What are your assumptions about this person?
  • Where did they come from?
  • What could be an alternative perspective be?

Take this example sometimes levelled at older colleagues:

 Point of View 1: They are so stuck in their ways.

Alternative point of view: They’ve learnt a lot about what works for them.

You can apply this in many other situations where prejudices arise, particularly when there are differences in power. Try looking at the following:

  • What are your beliefs about yourself and your autonomy?
  • What are your beliefs about others, specifically those at different levels to you?
  • What might their beliefs about you be?
  • And do these assumptions help or hinder your performance and contribution?
  • Finish by coming up with an alternative, but plausible view-point that could change your perspective on them or yourself.

In summary, to work with prejudice, first identify your assumptions, then ask, “What might be an Alternative position or approach that might improve your desire to work with them?” Articulate that view to yourself, write it down, perhaps even tell others – even if you are just trying it out.

2) Create commonality

When working with people you find difficult or don’t know, finding out more about them or focusing on common goals can help you move past prejudice to work more effectively together. It sounds obvious, but common sense isn’t always common practice. It’s important to understand yourself what the common purpose of a conversation is and it also helps to make these goals known by those you are working with. For example:

We are here to decide what can save us all time in the long run.

3) Test your assumptions

Finally, we can get caught in assumptions when we are excited about something or have been working on something for a long period of time.  Both of these situations are prone to the influence of unconscious assumptions. So, when working with new clients, products or teams, are you able to help test your ideas to ensure you’re working toward the best possible outcome? Here are some tips:

A) Make your assumptions explicit: write them down, tell other people what they are
B) Enjoy getting it wrong: at least once, try to come at the problem with ignorance, foolishness or just a different perspective
C) Ask for other people’s perceptions
D) Use open questions to find out more

Doing at least two or three of the above will help you identify opportunities that you might miss and make your meetings – and products – more effective!

That’s what it means to ACT on unconscious bias – let me know how you get on?

A final note: Unconscious shortcuts are particularly prevalent under pressure or in complex situations. While the above may seem simple, I would recommend choosing not more than one situation a day to test your biases and try an ACT approach. Otherwise, you will get exhausted and end up being biased anyway.

Why the Alt-Right won’t go away

White Protester

Image from NPR

And neither rational arguments nor censorship will make it do so.

The recent furore (not Fuhrer) in Charlottesville and other US flash points has triggered a global wave of discussion, encouraging many people to express opinions about race who have not done so before, particularly white people. This is long overdue. Here is my view – both appreciative and critical comments below would be most welcome.

Point One: Arguments based on facts are not going to work.

As with global warming, we have already seen the dismal failure of science/fact-based arguments to successfully inspire personal, corporate and government action to produce change. If many of the scientists studying global warming do little to change their behaviour, what can we expect from the rest of the population?  Knowing, or even believing, the facts alone does not always change behaviour. And it certainly won’t work here.

As we move to the messier world of human interaction, the facts are even harder to pin down and therefore, harder to use to show those interested in “ethnic purity” the shortcomings of their arguments. The videos from recent events, particularly Vice’s “Race and Terror” documentary, reveal some convenient omissions of history by the alt-right to justify their racial hatred – both recent (declining wages) and older (wealth from slavery).

And with google, it doesn’t take long to find omissions or just ignore facts presented by those with differing views. (This argument can also be thrown at the left). As they themselves profess, the alt-right’s position is not about “facts”, it is about safety, having a voice and power (or loss of it) – just listen to Trump.

Their voices are, for the most part, emotionally driven grievances that are as much about being heard, wanting justice and the reduction of personal threat, both real and perceived. It is a point of irony that, like their nemesis “SJWs,” the alt-right want social justice! And like their rivals, they sound more like desperate teenagers than the superior race they claim to be.

The point here is that emotional vitriol rarely listens to facts alone, if at all. Note to the left: Stop using facts alone to shut down the alt-right! Instead adopt the language they understand, like Jobs, Safety and Freedom of the Individual as these things are not only crucial, they are supported by a fair and egalitarian society.

Point Two: Censorship is not the answer

Shutting down rallies, exclusion from debates and firing of individuals (unless because of their competence) will not work either.  Here are a couple of reasons why:

  • The internet (still fairly open) will allow discussions to continue, but drive it underground. And like most online discussions, it will continue inside an echo-chamber of re-enforcing beliefs. As an experiment, I recommend spending time on a website dedicated to a value system different to your own and look at how little contrary evidence is presented. Then reflect on what this will do for people looking for surety in a complex world? You may also like to apply such analysis personally… To counter this, I believe the grievances of the alt-right need to be understood, and for that to happen they need to be heard. This will:
    1. Release some of the pressure that leads to violence,
    2. Meet their need to be heard and
    3. Show up the many flaws in their logic.
  • Exclusion from public discourse will add fuel to the belief that the left and liberals are “brain-washing communists that seek to stupefy the public” and turn us all into “docile sheep” at best, and “enslaved in a gulag” at worst. While sanctioning of abusive behaviour ought not be tolerated, ostracizing the alt-right from debate will further convince them that they have a legitimate cause. That said, any violence condoned by either side should be shut down.

So what?

What needs to be understood is that the audiences of the alt-right positions are already feeling marginalised. Radical voices that are shut down will create a further affinity with those already feeling excluded, and actually increase their appeal. Not only that, it encourages the need for an extreme response as their voices are further pushed from the public discourse. And this is why the alt-right will not go away.

Another reason why it will not go away is that most of the possible futures currently presented, both hopeful and apocalyptic, show less of a place for white men than they did in the past. While logically correct, this will ultimately feel threatening. (The rebukes to an all-female cast of the recent Ghostbusters film is one of many examples where anger rises when the role of white men is being questioned.) This is inevitably being felt by the population to a degree they have never felt before. There is not a place at the table as there once was. And although many would agree that this may be a good thing, it’s hard to see that as a white man right now.

Of course, this experience is familiar territory to women and people of colour before that, and still is. However, the challenge of unquestioned assumptions of power that go to the heart of white male identity is not only disorienting, it is destabilising. In order to find redress to this threat to power some blame Islam for the deterioration of Christian insights (even though its far more likely that science is to blame for that); Or “gender fluidity” for destabilising the role of the family as the back bone of society (which again may find its cause in the economics of western nations that require the ideal worker to be on 24/7), the list goes on.

All of these moments are asking men (and mostly white men) to find out who they are without their position and self-worth being handed to them by the machinations of white history. It is an important question that men need to start asking – who are they without power? Without their god-given/biological-given/socially-given place at the head of the table?

This is the question that the alt-right proposes to answer to, or rather seeks to avoid by changing the conversation to force things back how they were “when things were good/safe/clear” – MAGA! Maybe you deserve to be there, and maybe like many others, it is not your place, let’s see what happens…

This truly is an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Unfortunately, aggression will often follow and we still live in a world where access to violence is more available to men. In fact, the dogma of the alt-right is that if you don’t have a place, you can have your role fulfilled by becoming a fighter, whether that be for traditions or social justice. What better way to channel frustration than through violence and anger – after all, it makes you feel like a man! (or should I say human?) And like feminism or BLM, the alt-right demands will not go away until they get a seat at the table.

For me, part of the answer is about recognising the positive role of men in the world and not just the negative stereotypes that are often perpetuated by both sides of the argument. People who are kind, clear, strong and supportive – no matter what your background.

Another step is to understand the position of those feeling excluded – a point Hillary Clinton missed so abysmally in her “deplorables” statement. Without either of these things happening, the alt-right’s cause and following will remain on a fuse.


Unconscious Bias: Hidden Obstacles in Corporate Culture

Unconscious Bias has been getting a lot of press for the last few years – and training in it is now even being made compulsory in governemnts and organisations around the world. Australia has just commisioned a training for all its government employees.

While trying to make the workplace more effective is a great idea, with what we know about unconcious bias – forcing people to attend a training doesn’t work!* It builds resistance and doesn’t get through as effectively as possible.

But for those who are interested, I wrote this article with a colleague about 18 months ago. It is a snapshot of some of the useful work that can be done to reduce the negative impacts of bias.

CSv8i1_PP_Unconscious bias

Have a read and let me know your thoughts?


July–August 2016 issue (pp.52–60) of Harvard Business Review.

How to work with bias – addressing a hidden dynamic

When working with groups looking at prejudice and bias, one of the most frequent questions I get is:

But how can I get them to change their bias and behaviour?

Naturally, when an individual expresses a prejudice in a harmful way, people can feel the need for them to change their behaviour. However, the other person doesn’t always see it this way. In fact, they often defend their position and attempt to assert it more powerfully. Recent election campaigns have seemed to promote this behaviour – no matter which camp you are in, defensiveness and ridicule are par for the course.

This natural defensiveness poses a number of challenges when working to change perceived biases. So I decided to look at what we are asking of someone when we deem their prejudice is bad and try to “help” them change.  Assuming we’ve managed to jump the yawining chasm and engage in a conversation, what we are asking is,

That they:

  1. Know they are biased;
  2. Want to change it (by far the biggest challenge), and then
  3. Know how to change them

If that wasn’t difficult enough, although acts of discrimination and hurt are usually delivered by people, they are all culturally informed and sustained. The segregation of blacks and whites in the US and South Africa did more to reinforce the prejudices than the other way around. Growing up in such a situation can make one’s own bias:

  • Difficult to identify
  • Seem impersonal and therefore decrease perceptions of personal responsibility (ie. colonial guilt)
  • Even if the person does want to change, they may feel like they are betraying the culture where they learned the bias, which can create shame as well as threaten their sense of belonging.

To illustrate this last point, or the hidden dynamic of bias, imagine the following:

If a pick-pocket goes past a bulging wallet and doesn’t take it, they may well feel guilt or shame. After all, according to Fagin, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two.”

In the world of pick-pocket culture, not taking the wallet is not only a missed opportunity, but a challenge to identity and belonging. It is almost shameful to a pick-pocket!

The point being that if your group does things in a certain way, and that group is like family, then, if you do something different, you will feel guilty about it – even if you don’t want to feel guilty, and even when you know it’s “right.”

It is this last point that I would like to think about before going trying to “enlighten” the other person’s stance or viewpoint. Be careful, because you are also talking about their culture.

What would you do if someone came and told you,

“Only idiots lock their houses! If you want to get anywhere in life, you should leave all the doors unlocked in order to let strangers in who might bring new gifts or stories that you and your family really want…”

You’d probably tell them they were crazy – at best.

If you are short on real-life examples, a cursory look at the language of the recent American presidential candidates will give you plenty of examples of how “stupid” and “crazy” the other is. So is it helping?

What might be a better approach?

Based on my years of mediating and running groups, here’s what I suggest.

  1. Identify what’s in it for them (benefit)
  2. Let them know you are interested in their well-being (care)
  3. Check your own assumptions and prejudices (authenticity)

First, identify the pay-off or benefit for the person. This will help re-humanise the other. This may not be obvious, or even conscious, but at some level, the person is getting something back for having that point of view. (see Kegan & Lacey, “Immunity to Change” and Dan Ariely “Pay-off” for more on this). Nobody does anything that is 100% bad for them. Find out what the pay-offs are and speak to those first.

These could be anything from friends and belonging; safety and the avoidance of shame; certainty in the face of ambiguity and threat; or even just a good way to have an argument or get some attention. There is always a payoff.

Second, let the person know you have their back. This is basic care.

No one cares how much you know, unless they know how much you care.

If you are interested in changing them for your benefit only, chances are they will tell you to take a long walk off a short pier… Its not going to work.

Finally, be authentic.  Start by checking your own assumptions and prejudice. Asking someone to check their own without you doing it first, is not only hypocritical, it also lacks integrity. And no one likes being lectured by a hypocritical dupe! To do this authentically, to really look at your own biases takes courage and letting go. It’s important to know what that is like before expecting someone else to do it

So once you’re aware of some of your own fears, here are some steps you might try:

  1. Find out more about their world and situation – understand the context for why that view exists. AND importantly, let them know you understand that.
  2. Find out about the person’s hopes, needs and wishes. Identify the persons aspirations and speak to those
  3. And, if possible, find a way to help that person get the pay-off easier or in a different way.

– and with Christmas coming up, I am sure you can find some relatives to practice with. You might even get them to do it to you.

Thanks for reading – please comment below if you have your own thoughts on the subject.

The Charismatic Leader

Charisma, from the Greek, is often thought of as a magical or divine quality that only a lucky few are born with.  However, given the interest in effective leadership, many are making studies to discover what actually is charisma – with some remarkable findings.

In a recent Scientific Mind article, “In Search of Charisma” by Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher they summarise a few of the latest studies.  Some of the key findings include:

  1. It is the followers who attribute the “charisma” on to their leaders
  2. That “followership” is influenced as much, if not more so, by “inclusive language” as it is by any other quality or behaviour.  ie, do they speak as if they are “one of us”?
  3. That you can construct yourself to be seen as one of the group.  And this requires first that you listen, then reflect that to the group, then realise any changes or steps forward.

Take Franklin Roosevelt: Being wheelchair bound, he was not typical of the leader stereotypes in western culture, see Gladwell’s Blink for more insights on assumptions about leadership.  While these stereotypes are powerfully influential, FDR used his difference to his advantage by aligning his perseverance  through struggle with the needs of the people.  Likewise, Kennedy his physical ailments to align himself with youth and renewal.  Our leader’s need to reflect the stories and myths of the people they seek to serve.

So how can we use this?

First, we can look at how we are, and how we are not, like the group.  To do this well, we can consider a multitude of dimensions, such as, physicality, outlook, means of expression, language use, etc. Gathering this information by observing and noting what the group appreciates, we can then choose which qualities we may want to amplify that are like the group.

Even if we are atypical of the group, we can still appear charismatic by the language that we use.  Typically, “We” rather than “I” scores more points with our audience, as do stories that unfold about our vision, rather than dogmatic lecturing about what we need to do.

To do this well, we must also understand the story or the guiding myths of our groups – which is why people who announce they are natural leaders – and therefore should have power bestowed upon them – usually fail to win the hearts and minds of “their” groups – see The Apprentice for examples in abundance!

We need to understand our audience first, and then reflect what we understand.  In short, we must be seen to be both “of the group” and “for the group”, and if we succeed in doing something for the group, then our charismatic qualities will increase.

Below is just one snap-shot of  how a leader’s charisma is heavily influenced by their company’s performance, that is, the audience make attributes based on correlated stories rather than certainties about one’s “charisma.”

In Search of Charisma

For more, go to this link with summary below

  1. Charisma was traditionally thought to be an attribute of the leader, but it is primarily an attribution made by followers.
  2. Charisma centers on the capacity for a leader to be seen by followers as advancing group interests. Its spell can be broken if leaders are discovered to be acting for themselves or for an opposing group.
  3. Charismatic leaders cultivate narratives in which their sense of self comes to be seen by followers as emblematic of their shared group identity.

Will Power Alone is not Enough

Summary of The Secrets of Self-Improvement by Marina Krakovsky

A study published in Psychological Science, 2009 showed that “participants with the highest opinion of their self restraint were the most likely to give into temptation.  Those with the most modest, realistic assessment of their own abilities fared best.” This article points out that both self-awareness and self-motivation are key components of successful change.

Most of the time, people make significant changes on their own without the help of doctors or programs. Based on some of the latest neuroscientific research, this article highlights some of the key steps for making changes – long beyond the week after New Year’s Eve.  In summary they are:

  1. Maintaining realistic expectations
  2. Aligning with your deep motivators
  3. Taking baby steps
  4. Formulating Action Plans

According to Perth based psychologist, Martin Hegger, it’s easier to justify our actions and much harder to align our actions with our thoughts. Habits being hard to break is what makes them useful, so it’s not easy to change.  For instance, being in places aligned with a habit will have a big impact on our unconscious processing, making old habits easy to fall in to.  Ex-smokers know this when they go to an old pub, or house where they used to smoke.

Some pointers to keep in mind when forming new habits…

  • Lapses Are Normal. Don’t treat them as failure, just make adjustments to get back on track as soon as possible.
  • Mental Contrasting. There are two ways that mental imaging can help you break old habits The images to contrast are:
  1. A picture of the successful result.
  2. The specific obstacles that can get in the way.

For example, when resolving to save money, it helps to a) imagine the larger bank balance and b) wrestling with the decision to join friends on an expensive dinner.  This mental contrasting can help you “procrastinate less and tackle challenges more enthusiastically.”

  • Engage Your Autopilot. Imagine yourself taking steps to support your new habit in simple practical terms.  Seeing yourself stopping at the shop on the way home to buy three kinds of vegetables will help make the change easier.  This planning backfires when we attach rationale statements like “because I want to lose weight.”  Such rationalisations involve the thinking mind and the opportunity for doubt and old habitual mental processes can hijack the change process.  Using positive language, “will” as opposed to “will not,” is also key.
  • Find Your Own Why.  “Should do’s” without a link to personal values are hard to sustain.  When looking at new habits, ensure they are aligned with your psychological needs – such as those posited in humanist theory such as competence, contribution, closeness and autonomy. People who spent time finding their own personal motivations were far more successful than those incentivised by external motivators, such as financial gain.
  • Take Baby Steps. If completing the task you set is questionable, then it’s not a good start.  Breaking down goals into small achievable steps can help both give quicker wins and reduce the impact of setbacks. Developing coping skills such as effective scheduling and realistic goal setting are two key ways to support change.

Finally, remember that change is never easy and not all these steps will work for everyone or every habit.  This latest research suggests that the most important thing is to find your own way, and particularly ensuring these changes are aligned with your own values.  It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is never the wrong time to start taking steps toward a better life. Enjoy!