Unconscious bias is a popular topic, so it’s likely that your organization has many trainers who facilitate unconscious bias training. They help others see how it affects their jobs, but has your training team stopped to think about how it might affect you and how you do your jobs?

We all have biases; it’s how our brains are wired. Unconscious bias training typically includes concepts from social psychology, including heuristics (aids to learning, discovery or problem-solving) and cognitive biases. It often demonstrates how our perceptions of people and the world in general are naturally biased, an approach that helps keep learners from immediately either becoming defensive or, on the flipside, thinking that they have already worked on their biases and don’t need the training.

Our perceptions are unique, based on our past knowledge, experience, and cultural norms and assumptions. Our biases are inaccurate perceptions; we make assumptions and expectations based on what we think we know or understand. This behavior is not inherently bad, but when our unconscious biases lead to imposed identities, we often reinforce negative stereotypes and negative climates without even knowing it.

How might trainers’ biases, inaccurate perceptions, assumptions and expectations affect the success of training and impede in successful learning? Here are some examples.

Assumptions in Understanding

Unconscious bias can show up when, as trainers, we assume people will understand some of the basic takeaways from an activity without our having to state what we believe is obvious. That takeaway is obvious to us, because it’s in our wheelhouse. We’ve studied it, and we’re interested in it. If it’s not something others think about regularly, it will not be obvious to them.

In the Examples We Use

To help participants understand better and apply what they learn to their lives and jobs, we incorporate examples. It’s great if we can give examples that pertain to the unique group of participants in a training session, but we have to be mindful of our assumptions and biases when creating examples. By providing many different examples, we can reach many different perspectives.

When We Create Activities

We know that not everyone is comfortable talking in groups, whether it’s due to a personal preference or being from a culture where talking in groups isn’t encouraged. Again, variety is key here; providing many types of activities, including one-on-one discussions, is helpful.

Another consideration is whether you have managers and subordinates participating in the training together. When a participant’s supervisor is in the room, the subordinate may not be as open in discussions. It’s also important to remember that when we ask if there are any questions, we are assuming everyone is comfortable sharing that they don’t know something — which is not always the case.

How Can You Be More Aware of Your Unconscious Biases?

“Race: The Power of an Illusion” is a PBS series produced by California Newsreel that tackles the construct of race and what it means. Its website offers a number of interactive activities to raise your awareness, including the “sorting people” activity, which asks you to sort people into racial categories based on your response to individual pictures. Try it out, and then think about how accurate your assumptions were and, more importantly, how your assumptions might influence how you see and interact with others.

Another helpful activity is the trusted 10 exercise. Write down the names of 10 people (not including family members) whom you most trust — who are in your “inner circle.” How diverse is it? Make a point to diversify your circle; meet and befriend people who don’t look like you and who do not have similar interests and backgrounds.

It’s important to be mindful of your perceptions and judgments and know where they come from. What stereotypes do you have, and where do those perceptions come from? Personal experience? Media? Are your judgments of other people’s behaviors based on your own issues rather than theirs? Are you perceiving someone else’s words or behavior negatively because of your own bias? Considering these questions will improve your interactions not only with learners but with anyone else you interact with or meet.