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What’s the point of unconscious bias training?


This month, we’ve been working with Chaucer Plc, a leading specialty insurance group, to help managers be more aware of unconscious bias. But can you really train people in unconscious bias awareness if it’s ‘unconscious’? To understand this, you must first understand what unconscious bias is.

We all have it, it is a bias that happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. The human mind is prone to numerous biases. They are our tendency to view certain people, statistics, facts and situations more favourably or not, depending on whether you find similarities to your own life. Biologically, we are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests. Psychologists tell us that our unconscious biases are simply our natural preferences and call this phenomenon social categorisation, whereby we routinely and rapidly sort people and situations into groups, bypassing our normal, rational and logical thinking.

We can use these processes very effectively (we call it intuition). However, we also rely too much on our automatic responses to situations, learnt beliefs and behaviours. This can impact greatly on how we build diverse teams and businesses, how we communicate and come across to others, the relationships we build and, on a wider scale, on development within an organisation.

To counter unconscious bias, a conscious effort needs to be made to improve the way we behave and communicate to others. Teams and individuals who are more aware of behaviours that promote environments that enhance diverse working practices, are more likely to put these behaviours into practice. This is where effective training can have a positive impact. Exploring different bias types and having open and honest discussions about these biases can help. For example, the ‘halo effect’ os one common bias. It happens when someone does a great piece of work, which then leads to them being chosen to do the same task or similar again. They get better at doing the work, get known for it and others don’t get a chance to have a go. Training other people to do that same piece of work no longer seems time effective, therefore the bias is sustained.

One of the ways to get past bias is to look at a variety of behaviours that are more inclusive. For example, buddy working. If you know a person is a good at a piece of work and another person would like to try or you want to share out the work, buddy people up. Use the ‘halo’ person to help the others and share the knowledge. Peer learning is always more effective, plus workload is shared as are skills.
Unconscious bias awareness is about identifying bias, understanding why it happens and finding ways to change the situation. One method that can help is to practice looking at situations from the perspective of another person or business. This can help avoid what Igor Grossman at the University of Waterloo in Canada calls ‘thinking traps. By ‘self-distancing’ you can restore a less biased more open-minded attitude and decision. There is also good evidence to say that if you can identify your own biases and thinking traps, you are more likely to act in a more open, logical and diverse way.

So, in answer to the question: what’s the point in Unconscious bias training, it can be effective if delivered in the right way but also sustained in the organisation.

Chaucer PLC recognises this, and unconscious bias training is part of a company-wide programme, helping everyone understand what they can do to be more aware of their biases, thinking traps and behaviours. One element of the programme creates champions who run monthly action learning sets in the organisation. These will be attended by groups who want to solve unconscious bias challenges in their sectors. They will come to the sets with a challenge each month. The challenge will be discussed and actions to help create awareness and more mindful behaviours will be taken back and put into practice. The programme also introduces Growth Mindset management.

This module has several helpful elements:

  • It helps managers understand the importance of creating an environment where everyone has the potential to learn
  • It helps managers understand how to give feedback in a way that promotes learning and self-directed learning
  • It shows managers ways to deliver on the spot coaching for developing people effectively

Growth Mindset management principles, coupled with unconscious bias training, delivers solutions for managers who want to strengthen their whole team and not just focus on the few. Adopting these practices will increase potential and develop a truly diverse organisation.

Here are some unconscious biases to be aware of and some tips on challenging them:

Affinity bias

Favoring people with whom you have something in common that creates a personal connection and makes it easier for you to trust them or see them in a favorable light.

  • Went to the same school
  • Is from the same town or city
  • Enjoys the same hobbies
  • Sits in the same location

Tips for challenging

Pay attention to who you are:

  • Spending your time with
  • Asking feedback from
  • Bring interesting work to
  • Likely to favour because of a personal connection

Expand your network by actively reaching out to other team members before there is a need.
Make an active effort to engage individuals you might otherwise not think to engage.

Confirmation bias

Making choices based on your long-held beliefs or learned stereotypes. Our experience and exposure throughout life develops, then reinforces the association of certain traits with certain groups. For example, children’s story books show men predominantly working in construction jobs, this then tends to happen in real life because the idea that construction is a man’s job is reinforced in childhood. In movies, white privileged older males are usually shown as CEO’s of large multi-national banks. This then becomes ‘true’ in real life.

Confirmation bias is processed as either:

  • An exception to the norm
  • Evidence in support of the bias

Tips for success

Get more exposure to a diverse range of styles and recognise the positive impact this can have on decision making. Be aware of the cultural bias itself to keep assumptions and stereotypes out of your decision-making process.

Be open to:

  • Disagreements and hear the full reason why
  • Think what would be the opposite of the situation and what impact would that have
  • Look beyond your own cultural norms
  • Check in with others. Is what you believe fact or just a belief?

insider-outsider group dynamics

This is the interaction between groups, in which the ‘insiders’ have power and influence, but are typically less aware of the dynamic at play, and the ‘outsiders’ have less power and influence, but are more aware of the dynamic. An insider group might simply be a university that many of your work colleagues went to and therefore have similar thoughts and ideas.

Tips for success

  • When you are part of an insider group, actively solicit and listen to the ‘outsider’ perspective.
  • Reflect on your insider/outsider group experiences to be more aware of them.
  • When you are part of an outsider group, share your experiences with the ‘insiders’ if you feel your voice is not being heard.
  • Be aware of who you pick on ‘your team’. Make sure you have a variety of insider and outsider people

Systemic bias

This is when organisational rules or processes unnecessarily favour some individuals or groups, while putting others at a disadvantage.
Individual biases get unintentionally embedded into policies and procedures. For example, if a person crafting the job description has always hired people with a financial services background, then that preference becomes a requirement, reducing access to the broadest pool of talent.

Tips for success

  • One way to minimise the potential impact of systemic biases is to regularly review job descriptions to determine if they contain inclusive or exclusive criteria and/or language
  • Be aware of language used in interview processes, feedback or job descriptions
  • Create guidance for interviewers and questions to stick to. Have a point system for the questions as numbers are more neutral when reviewing
  • Have a broad team of interviewers
  • Be aware of informal and formal systems that can create bias. For example, going to the pub on a Friday for drinks and discussing work decisions can exclude people who are not present. Can you have a Monday morning breakfast network too?
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