The idea of unconscious bias in the workplace relieves us of responsibility to really challenge our thinking, says Simon Fanshawe:

In the first instance let me say something contentious. I rather like some of my biases. They are perfectly innocuous. I won’t eat horsemeat in France and I don’t think nose-piercings are at all attractive. The problem would arise though if, on the basis of either, I dismissed every French person as fundamentally cruel to animals or decided that any pierced person shouldn’t meet clients. At that point, I have turned personal preference into dismissing an entire group of people. 

Biases at work

But does it matter in work that I have those biases? Is it inevitable that they will seep into my judgement? The current fad for Unconscious Bias Training would suggest that it does. Because, according to the theory, we aren’t aware of the biases we have. They apparently leap out at us from the depths of our consciousness. And we have no ability to stop them.  But there’s a deep flaw in this approach. It lets everyone off doing the work we need to do to in order to challenge ourselves. 

For example, I once was standing by the bus stop and a black guy drove past in a flash BMW. I thought “I wonder who he is”. He was fairly swiftly followed by a white guy in an equally flash convertible and I thought “Nice car”. My husband was with me. He’s Nigerian. I suddenly realised that years of black guys in sharp cars on TV and in the movies had made a deep impression. I could challenge my own bias and I am fairly sure that observing being black in the UK over eight years of marriage has sharpened my awareness of racial stereotypes.


Unconscious bias training doesn’t work

I am not holding myself up. I get it wrong the whole time about all sorts of types of people. But relying on the idea of unconscious bias is just an excuse. It relieves all of us of the responsibility of challenging each other and ourselves. Furthermore the worrying evidence is that unconscious bias training, the go-to for all standard diversity programmes, has almost the exact opposite effect. 

At the forefront of this work has been Professors Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St. Louis and Melissa Thomas-Hunt, formerly of the University of Virginia, now Global Head of Diversity and Belonging at Airbnb. In one paper in 2015 they concluded: “The deleterious effects of stereotyping on individual and group outcomes have prompted a search for solutions. 

One approach has been to increase awareness of the prevalence of stereotyping in the hope of motivating individuals to resist natural inclinations. However, it could be that this strategy creates a norm for stereotyping, which paradoxically undermines desired effects”. 

Their research demonstrated that “individuals who received a high-prevalence-of-stereotyping message expressed more stereotypes than those who received a low-prevalence-of-stereotyping message or no message”. 

You will probably have seen this in action. Once you tell people that biases are unconscious and, what’s more, everybody has them, they relax. It’s an ‘Oh Phew’ moment. ‘Oh Phew, you mean it’s not just me. You mean everybody’s biased?’ And their responsibility for challenging it starts to diminish. The concept of unconscious bias and the associated training ends up confirming rather than challenging their views.


Be motivated to challenge your own biases

Broadly speaking, you can’t argue rationally with your biases because they weren’t acquired rationally. They were your social education and they are very deep-seated in your way of seeing the world. To eliminate them you need to be aware of them. Not in a helpless way, but actively. 

You must be concerned about the consequences of your biases, see the impact of your language or behaviour as significant, dislike the effect it has on others and then make a conscious effort to check what you say and do. This motivation to make that change is all important. One of the reasons that training may not be so effective is that your enthusiasm may well not be shared by all your people. Training needs to open up discussion not close it down, offer a hand not point a finger. 

It must enable your people to explore their biases openly without fear of retribution in that space, understand the effect of them on colleagues and on the business, realise the damage they cause and through that find the impetus to change and, above all, be given practical ways of tackling them that they feel are relevant to different situations in their lives. If it helps, here is an acronym: RAGE.  Recognise bias, Agree that it is damaging, Genuinely want to change it and Engage actively to do so. 

Simon Fanshawe is the author of  “THE POWER OF DIFFERENCE – where the complexities of diversity and inclusion meet practical solutions