Last year, CBS News published the results of a nationwide survey of more than 150 police departments. While almost 70% of departments said they had implemented unconscious bias training for their officers, most did not have an evaluation process in place to know whether it was effective, and anecdotes from police officers suggested that the training is of a low quality and not reinforced.

Recent events, of course, support this notion, including the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Data does as well, with research suggesting that police officers are significantly more likely not only to stop Black people but to shoot them or use other forms of force against them than they are white people.

While the stakes are usually lower in corporate training, there are several lessons that learning and development (L&D) leaders can take away from the mistakes (and successes) of the training that occurs in police departments.

The Limitations of Unconscious Bias Training

Unconscious, or implicit, bias training is notorious for being ineffective at best and exacerbating the problem at worst. Rote, “compliance” training is often viewed by learners as a check-the-box activity with no impact on actual results. Practitioners and researchers often agree.

“Some of these trainings are based on wishful thinking and intuition,” psychologist Patricia Devine told The Atlantic in a 2017 article on implicit bias training for police. She and other researchers quoted in the article cited the importance of standardization and assessment. Devine also told the New York Times in 2018 that “she was troubled by the spread of such training in the absence of probing, objective research.” Otherwise, “it can and often does backfire.”

In the same article, Brenda L. Leffler, who retired from the Colorado State Patrol as a lieutenant colonel and, as of 2018, was training New York sergeants, said that many of her learners “enter her classroom in a defensive, or hostile, posture.”

Another challenge, as the CBS News survey demonstrated, is that it’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of implicit bias training. One reason, according to Anna Laszlo, national training director and master instructor at Fair & Impartial Policing LLC (FIP), is that “very little research has been done” on efficacy.

While many people say that there isn’t enough data to support the claim that implicit bias training is effective in changing actual behavior, Laszlo says, research does tell us that any type of behavior change is difficult. “No training is an absolute guarantee,” she says, “but the responsible action is to continue to get factual, science-based training into the hands of policy-makers and practitioners.”

Training That Works: Is It Possible?

What does that training look like? Laszlo says it includes four elements, listed and adapted here for the corporate workplace:

Experiential Learning

Training should be based on real situations where learners have to make decisions that implicit bias may impact, such as hiring or performance reviews.

The Right Motivators

Most police officers are motivated by safety (of themselves and others), being effective in preventing and addressing crime and solving related problems, and justice (Most police officers choose their career “because they wanted to make their communities better.”) Similarly, by understanding their learners and their professional and personal goals, L&D professionals can adapt programs to clearly show the “WIIFM” (“what’s in it for me?”).

Credible Instructors

Whether the anti-bias trainer is from within the organization or hired from outside, learning leaders must make sure that he or she is credentialed, experienced and knowledgeable.

Practical Skills

Training should cover skills that are applicable to learners’ day-to-day jobs.

Laszlo says that post-training assessments suggest that following a course that incorporates these four elements, learners understand “that implicit bias can impact well-intentioned people … that implicit biases can lead police to being over-vigilant when someone is not a threat … that policing based on biases can be unsafe, ineffective and unjust … [and that they] can develop skills to manage and reduce their biases.” What’s more, assessments indicate that supervisors who have participated in implicit bias training use their new skills “to identify potential[ly] biased behavior in their direct reports and to take actions to thwart biased decision-making.”

How to overcome the challenge of learner defensiveness cited in the New York Times article? One way, Leffler said, is to explain “that implicit bias is a human issue” and to start with “examples of bias that are less charged than the racial biases that are driving so much of the education effort.” It works for her; learners leave her classroom with a desire to learn more.

At the Oakland Police Department, Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt used a simple tool in 2018 to reduce bias in police stops. “We settled on a simple approach to reducing stops, and that was to push officers to ask themselves a question before each and every stop they make,” she told WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, last month. “And that question was, ‘Is this stop intelligence-led, yes or no?’ And what they mean by intelligence-led is, ‘Do I have prior information that ties this particular person to a specific crime?’” In one year, stops decreased from 32,000 to 19,000, and stops of Black people fell by more than 43%.

In the corporate workplace, training professionals can use this technique by, for example, instructing managers to ask themselves, before promoting or firing an employee, “Do I have data that supports this decision?”

A Systemic Problem Requires a Systemic Solution

An article from the American Psychological Association suggests that “rather than trying to eliminate [officers’] unintentional biases, it might be more fruitful to stack the deck so that officers are less likely to act on those biases.” After all, “changing situations can be more feasible than changing ingrained stereotypes.” Some departments have changed protocols and policies by, for example, requiring that the officer who chases a suspect is not the one who books him or her or leads the interrogation. Similarly, businesses might consider a solution that not only involves anti-bias training but also conversations between leaders and employees, improved hiring and performance management processes, and diversity and inclusion programs like employee resource groups (ERGs).

Unconscious bias training is just one part of a much broader solution to racism — not least because it’s often a result of very conscious bias. It may even be “just a band aid” on a more serious wound — but sometimes, we need band aids to keep us safe while we seek more effective treatment. Until we see cultural change, training will continue to have an important role to play.

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