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.
Harvard’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:
- Diverse and willing attendees with time built-in to share personal experience and stories in a meaningful way
- Simple tools that are not too mentally taxing and are easy to implement
- 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.