Bill Michael should have known better. Not necessarily because he came across as callous or uncaring, although he did, but because he was patently wrong about unconscious bias. He was most erroneous as a representative of a prestigious firm that deals with large sums of money. In fact, KPMG’s job is to scrutinise businesses so that human error and propensity to self-serve do not blind their staff or their clients into making bad decisions. (Lehman Brothers anyone?) Just because their unconscious bias training didn’t work, doesn’t mean unconscious bias doesn’t exist. But Michael’s error does not mean he was wholly without merit.

KPMG building UK
Source: The Guardian, 11 February 2021

Firstly, it is true that expecting a one-off training session to successfully eradicate bias is farfetched and unrealistic. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest such training, when it is made compulsory, doesn’t work. An example of this exists right now in the UK, where the government is NOT mandating vaccinations for COVID. Mandating vaccines makes people who are already sceptical even more averse to taking the vaccine and therefore, would require even more government resources for compliance. The UK government knows such biases exist and makes policy decisions based on that.  Changing opt-out to opt-in clauses is another example of how organisations change decision-making processes to factor in bias. It therefore doesn’t follow that all unconscious bias training is a waste of time. It means it can be part of a useful intervention to tackle poor-decision making and bias at work. The reduction of gender bias in orchestra recruitment is testament to that.

Furthermore, the critique that unconscious bias props up Critical Race Theory (CRT) ignores that unconscious bias extends beyond assumptions about people to all kinds of decisions. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is full of evidence of the poor decision making that plagues us all – including himself, an expert in the field. However, this doesn’t, as Joanne Williams claims, give any of us an excuse not to bother – although plenty of people do latch on to this handy excuse. Rather, it is a call to see if we can adapt our behaviour to reduce the impact of our unconscious bias. There are a number of examples of how to do this contained in Kahneman’s book, such as swapping examiners of students’ papers between submissions.

Michael was also right to be sceptical of the effectiveness of unconscious bias training: The expectation that we can eliminate an unconscious behaviour with conscious awareness alone does not fully recognise the power of unconscious bias. If it were that simple, we would have cracked the puzzle. Awareness itself is not the answer – the conscious mind is not omnipotent and, as the reader may know, is easily distracted with plenty of other tasks! As Kahneman, Ariely and others show, it is not enough to be aware because our intellect is flawed.

Interestingly, given many biases exist unconsciously, we don’t have to be aware that we are “feeling less biased” while doing them, we simply need to take action if we want to mitigate bias. Simply changing images in a room can make people feel more or less included – without them even being aware that it is happening. And these actions work best when they are simple (most people avoid hard tasks…) So what might some of those actions be?

In my work with unconscious bias, I encourage leaders not just to increase their awareness, but to take action – however small. What does that mean? (Drum roll for the cheesy management acronym.) When working with unconscious bias, you must aim to ACT. That is, try one of the following:

Articulate an Alternative – Write down or suggest a point of view that might be different from your own.

Create a Commonality – Establish common ground and goals with someone who appears different to yourself.

Test Your Thinking – Ask a follow-up question: Get more information to check out your assumptions and ideas.

Now I know you might be thinking – “Is that it? These are too simple.” But how often do we do them? And they are things that anybody, leaders or friends, can actually do during or before conversations to reduce the impact of potential biases. And such strategies need to be simple, otherwise, our bias for ease (read “autopilot”/Kahneman’s “System 2”) will take over and we won’t bother. And I don’t claim that we can eradicate such bias, only that we can reduce the impact of them in certain situations.

For more on this approach, see my previous post here, or get in touch.

When done well, unconscious bias and inclusion training can promote healthy conversations and increase connection between people. It can help grow understanding of the challenges and dynamics that foster inequality at work as well as promote greater collaboration and team work. To that end, suggestions that unconscious bias training is a waste of time do not add up. They merely indicate a poor understanding of unconscious bias (and probably poor training – to that end, Bill Michael was probably right, there is some bad unconscious bias training out there!) Good training takes this into account and businesses that mean business incorporate changes in procedures alongside trainings to reduce such biases. Training alone will have a small impact, procedural changes alone will face more resistance, but when done together, businesses can start to make improvements to their inclusion and decision making.

Finally, my view on diversity is that we are composed of many different aspects and that some parts of ourselves will show up more than others. Sometimes, one aspect of our identity can come to the fore and this can result in unintended harm, like being overlooked for a promotion because of sex or skin colour. While the aspects categorised as “protected characteristics” are important parts of who we are, we are more than any single one of these identities. For example, I am a white man and a father. In many places this matters and has advantages, in others less so. This is true for all of us. Celebrating and recognising the richness of our own and others’ diversity is one way that single-issue D&I trainings may faulter. That is not to say anti-racism workshops are not useful, but, as critiques like Joanne of CRT say, centring one identity over others has potential downsides.* In fact, if those trainings are to factor in unconscious bias, they will take steps to engage potential resistors rather than alienate them from the start.

I believe the solutions, whatever that means, will be co-created in dialogue with all parties and that the harmful dynamics of racism (and other “-isms”) are explored in relationship: Both between individuals (interpersonally) and between individuals and the wider culture and community (societally), whether that be their family, workplace or where they live. If you need help working on either of these, we can have discussions here or within your organisation. Start by dropping me a line below…

Was Bill Michael wrong? Yes! Does unconscious bias training have its limitations, of course! Should we do more to look at how we can create a more equitable playing field? Yes! Do I have all the answers? Of course not. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you do try any of the ACT strategies, let me know how you get on.

*For more on the nuances of the pros and cons of single issue training, I found this article interesting.