Recently I had the privilege of running some EDI-focused Unconscious Bias training workshops. These invariably raise interesting questions from the delegates, including:
- We have always been advised to “recruit for fit; bring in people who have our values.” Isn’t what we are learning now a complete turnaround?
- By running this training aren’t we encouraging people to claim they are being excluded?
- Aren’t some organisations banning Unconscious Bias training?
- Are you accusing me of being biased? How do you know that?
- If Unconscious Bias is real, then surely I can’t be held responsible for what I feel, say, or do?
Unfortunately there are those who do not want to understand; those who are fearful of understanding; and those who want to inhibit understanding by others. Those feelings can go right to the top. Indeed, a former President of the USA, apparently with the best of intentions, signed Executive Order 13950 on 20 September 2020 to promote EDI. Unfortunately, it was interpreted by virtually everyone who read it, perhaps rightly, as a ban on Unconscious Bias training. Fortunately, this has now been rescinded by a separate Executive Order signed by the current President.
The reality is that we now know the effect of Unconscious Biases. These are more accurately Cognitive Preferences or Implicit Associations but, for brevity, we will continue here to use the term Unconscious Biases. We know and understand the unconscious mental processes that, every second of our lifetimes, are detecting patterns and associations in our experiences. These are being locked into or updated in our sub-conscious without any judgment, values, or principles being applied. We don’t even know it is happening.
The vast majority of these patterns or associations are essential to being human – they enable us to speak, walk, cook, drive, etc. The same processes continually monitor our environment and automatically trigger matching emotions or responses again and again and again with no conscious thought. Unless interrupted, they influence what we say, what we do, and the way that we do it.
That is the problem! And it is a problem because we cannot easily or quickly change those unconscious thoughts. To do that, we must expose ourselves to repetitive contra experiences. Indeed, this is one of the powerful arguments used for affirmative action. But, there is good news!
First, with repeated exposure to contra-experiences such Unconscious Biases do change. As President Abraham Lincoln said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Second, we can learn to detect the impulses we feel, triggered by our unconscious thoughts; we can apply judgement and principles to them; and we can decide to say or do different things. But, that is not going to happen as a result of merely appealing to our better nature. It is not going to happen because of value statements, core values, or corporate policies. Even laws are unlikely to change the behaviours of some.
However, we have long known that education is a powerful driver of change. Indeed, ruthless regimes have long used enforced ignorance to control populations. We are fortunate in the developed world to have access to quality education. But most school syllabuses do not address the specifics of Unconscious Biases and their impact on EDI. So, the working population is largely unaware of how Unconscious Biases are formed and how they trigger impulses that, in turn, can lead to unacceptable thoughts, words, and deeds.
“Teaching people about Cognitive Preference gives them an excuse for bad behaviour and/or accuses them of being inherently discriminatory.” This is a challenge I hear often. But it is not an excuse. The simple reality is that knowledge is the only thing that equips us to detect our impulses, to analyse them, to identify options, to evaluate those options, to make good selections, and to implement appropriate behaviour. Knowledge is the solution.
And one last thought. We are rightly fighting to address the negative impact of some Unconscious Biases on our relationships with each other; to address the EDI issues. That is essential and we still have a long way to go. But, as our knowledge of Unconscious Biases and their potential impact increases, we also need to consider what else they impact. The last time you purchased an expensive item, perhaps a car, a house, an expensive gadget, … did you consciously think about the impact that the price sticker had on your decision. The last time you went into a store, did you consciously think about the impact that the sign, “Buy 2, get one free” had on your purchases. The last time you were about to fly, “Did you think about the relative safety of the flight versus that of the journey to the airport.” Probably not. Unconscious Biases were at play in all those scenarios. Virtually all the decisions we make, conscious or impulsive, are affected by the same mental processes.
Educating ourselves and any staff we have in how Unconscious Biases are formed, the impact they can have, and how to interrupt their effects can achieve far more than EDI success – it can enhance the quality of operational decision making.
Clinton Wingrove is Principal Consultant at Clinton HR Ltd. Contact Clinton on 07852 258976 or at [email protected].