Unconscious bias training is rapidly finding a place in training menus across the country and beyond. The reasoning behind this trend is sound. It’s grounded in a commitment to the advantages of workforce diversity, which include fostering increased creativity, improving decision-making, enhancing teamwork, and achieving exemplary customer service and community relations — all with improved financial performance. However, this training all too often falls far short of its potential as an organizational intervention.

Why Unconscious Bias Training?

We’ve come to understand that humans are subject to implicit bias in our thinking, attitudes and resulting behaviors. With the human brain encountering as much as 11 million bits of data per second, it reflexively relies on data reduction and simplification tricks to function from moment to moment.

On the surface, this process seems effective — but it turns out the non-conscious mental shortcuts we end up using in problem-solving and decision-making (often called heuristics) are greatly subject to bias, influenced by the worldview we are exposed to in our environment. The attitudes, beliefs and storylines transmitted to us by our families, schools, communities and media provide a template that we use to make sense of what we encounter in the world.

Those mental frameworks are socially inherited from prior generations, and we inherit data processing algorithms that are centuries — even millennia — out of date. It is no wonder, then, that we are apt to make split-second negative judgments about people who are different from us. These judgments are unconscious bias in action, and they interfere directly with our interpersonal, leader and organizational competence.

Why Does It Fall Short?

Faced with limited success in their efforts to foster an inclusive environment, many organizations have identified unconscious bias as a critical obstacle to successfully employing, retaining and leveraging a diverse workforce. They’ve rolled out training that identifies the mental processes underlying unconscious bias, how it shows up, its business and human impacts, and the sources of the attitudes that affect our judgments about others. This training often leads participants in self-examination of the biases they may hold and the behaviors that can ensue, from microaggressions to adverse employment decisions. Then, participants are sent back to work with advice on what not to do — an aversive model that can have unintended consequences, such as leading people to avoid interactions with certain colleagues to avoid making a mistake.

Unfortunately, we now know when we add awareness of our bias to an existing base of unconscious attitudes, we can exacerbate the negative behavior we are aiming to reduce. It turns out that when we don’t provide a set of strategies or practices that learners can use to intentionally overwrite the biased mental frames they are carrying, bias can, in fact, become worse.

Unconscious Bias Training as Skill-building

It is possible, however, to provide robust tools that can help us reassert control over our thinking and make active choices about what we allow to influence our attitudes, behaviors and decisions. Building on the same training, we can go beyond a basic understanding of unconscious bias to provide accessible personal practices that have demonstrated powerful bias reduction and that stimulate inclusive behaviors and attitudes. These exercises translate into easily learned and practiced skills for enhanced self-awareness; for noting how bias interferes with our thinking; and for building alternative storylines that first counteract, then overwrite, the negative interpretations embedded in bias.

Strategies that serve this purpose engage learners in building a set of habits that help old biases fade and foster new, positive beliefs and attitudes. These exercises include activities such as stereotype replacement, perspective-taking, courageous conversations, micro-affirmations and goal-setting. Rather than focusing on aversion to bad behavior, all of these tactics are oriented toward clear thinking about mental processes, explicitly recognizing learners’ capacity for personal and professional growth and committed action. With practice, these skills can become second nature, a continuous, self-enhancing process that includes:

  • Recognizing bias in their thoughts.
  • Considering where the bias came from.
  • Examining data that contradicts those negative stories.
  • Deepening their insight and empathy for the experiences and challenges of others.
  • Engaging in honest, open-ended exploration of colleagues’ experiences.
  • Building new internal narratives based on attention to strengths and contributions.
  • Setting goals for their own learning and inclusive behavior, tied to proactive changes in the workplace environment.

These goals are included in the most effective and impactful unconscious bias training. This training invigorates participants’ sense of positive possibilities and self-empowered learning in service to the organization’s vision of a truly inclusive workplace that brings out the best in every employee.

Leveraging for Culture Change

Naturally, the highest return on this training investment occurs when cohorts undertake this proactive learning together. Because the model is non-judgmental, yet focused on action-oriented personal, professional and team development, colleagues can help each other continue the journey of self-discovery in an atmosphere of cooperative learning tied to motivation for positive results. This experience, in turn, enhances individual and group emotional intelligence and generates a new shared language for naming and disempowering bias. It fosters supportive accountability for inclusiveness and stimulates a collective commitment to examining and evolving work practices that rise above the bias of the past.

Rather than being just the flavor of the week, unconscious bias training can work. When it’s focused on the skills of rewriting mental scripts and growing new personal and professional competence, unconscious bias training can be a potent cornerstone of leadership development and organizational culture change.