We work with clients to help them build a more inclusive workplace – something that should be on the agenda for all organisations. We support through activity such as consultative workshops or awareness campaigns. When we do this, we work with Advita Patel, who is part of our collective team and an inclusion and communication strategist. We asked Advita to share her thoughts on unconscious bias training. Is it something that addresses the symptoms, rather than the root cause of bias in the workplace?
Now, this might be topic that’s a tad controversial. Some of you reading may feel slightly uncomfortable. But do you know what? Positive change doesn’t always happen in the comfort zone.
A few disclaimers before we get into this conversation because this is precisely what this blog is – a starting point for a conversation.
It’s not my job to tell you what you can and can’t do. I see my role as someone who can guide and advise based on my research and experience. Ultimately, you must decide what’s right for you and your organisation. I’m also not an expert in everything to do with inclusion, diversity or equity. I learn something new every day and unlearn something every day as the world of inclusion evolves frequently. You can’t stay stuck in one place as things get outdated quickly, so you have to stay ahead of the curve if you want to make a difference.
On that note, let’s chat about unconscious bias training. Is it an effective way to teach people how to address their biases towards specific characteristics? In my opinion, no, it isn’t.
Even though unconscious bias training can change attitudes in the short term, these do not translate into changes in behaviour in the long term. Various studies show that those who receive unconscious bias training revert to previous behaviours within six months. We’re creatures of habit and we can sometimes take the easier route. So, unless we take it upon ourselves to keep learning and updating our knowledge, we will just go back to what’s safe and easy.
It’s also hard to unlearn biases if you’re not taking intentional action. A top tip to help you unlearn some behaviours is to expand your network. Who are the top 10 people in your trusted circle outside your family? Do they all have similar characteristics to you? Same background, education, political stance? Your lived experiences form your biases and this often includes irrational thought. If you’re surrounded by the same echo chambers and information bubbles, you won’t know any different.
Often unconscious bias training can lead to people becoming defensive and resisting change which can turn them off from taking appropriate action to progress inclusion in their organisation. Education is essential, but you must understand how people want to learn in your organisation. Most people won’t see their bias unless it’s called out. But sometimes, when bias is called out, it can bring shame, which can cause the defensive behaviour. If people are not ready to address how their behaviour may have contributed to unfair practice, then sitting in a room with an EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) trainer is not going to be effective. They will begrudge the session and probably find some excuse not to attend. Blasting them with lots of information without context is not helpful either. So, it’s important to communicate the why and give people a chance to explore their thinking – properly. I know it can be hard when we care and are passionate about inclusion. But in my experience telling people they are wrong without explaining the why rarely leads to change.
So what can we do to create a more inclusive workplace?
People connect with people. So, building connections through storytelling can make a big difference. We also have more in common than we are sometimes led to believe. But our irrational thoughts will make us think that people who look different to us are not our people. Be mindful of the news you consume and the people you follow. Do your due diligence, ask curious questions and focus on individuals, not their characteristics. Initiatives like reverse mentoring, skill swaps, and buddying programmes can be very effective to help form connections and find common ground with others.
So, what do you think? Can bias truly be totally unconscious? Has unconscious bias training worked for you? Let us know!
Advita Patel is a Redefining Communications collective partner, who works as a communications consultant. She specialises in cultivating inclusive cultures by helping organisations communicate effectively with their workforce so all colleagues can belong and thrive in their work. Advita is also the co-author of Building A Culture of Inclusivity and the co-founder of ‘A Leader Like Me’ which helps underrepresented groups in the workplace progress further in their career. She’s also a co-host on the Calm Edged Rebels podcast with Trudy Lewis and Jenni Field.
If you would like to tackle the root cause of bias in your workplace and create an environment that nurtures diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging, we’d be happy to set up a chat about The Field Model and how it can help you uncover the root cause and fix issues for the long term.