Unconscious Bias

The Challenge of Unconscious Bias – by Deborah Levine

Unconscious bias training is an admirable project but may often be ineffective. The fuzzy, vague term of unconscious bias is often applied indiscriminately, but unconscious bias isn’t a one-size-fits-all term amenable to a one afternoon of training. Yes, it can refer to the incident where the police were called to arrest two African-Americans waiting for a meeting at Starbucks. But it can also mean only smiling at customers that look like you, rejecting resumes from diverse applicants, and promoting the employees who resemble the current leadership team. If we want to address unconscious bias effectively, we need to first be aware of how the senses, emotions, and brain interact to create unconscious bias. Second, we must go beyond awareness of our biases to sensitivity to their impact. Lastly, we need to develop a system that internalizes wise decision making with ongoing reinforcement of that competence.

The Complexity of Unconscious Bias

The complexity of the process of bringing unconscious bias to long-term wise decision making should rule out quickie responses. A one-time lecture with power point slides should be considered as an introductory lesson only. If that lecture is accompanied by an interactive group facilitation, the process will have gotten underway but is by no means complete. Keep in mind that scientists tell us that it takes daily practice of three weeks for new habits to establish themselves in our minds. It should concern Starbucks managers that the unconscious bias training planned for their employees consists of only one afternoon of training, regardless of the high profile of the trainers involved.

Let us understand the magnitude of moving from unconscious bias to competence and wisdom. It’s not a matter of simply being aware of workplace diversity. Research has shown that forcing a team into awareness of cultural differences can often add stress to relationships and defensiveness to communication. Further, labeling people as racist and sexist seldom enhances their desire to be inclusive and respectful. This was dramatically demonstrated in the case of a Google engineer who rejected the training as “shaming” and insisted that women are biologically unsuited to technical computer work. Rather than bludgeoning people, there needs to be a more sophisticated, nuanced, and humane approach.

The Neuro Science of Unconscious Bias

Broadening minds requires the development of new neuro pathways and then connecting them for sensitivity that can anticipate culture clashes. Children are able to engage in this process as part of growing up. You can see the phenomenon if you move your family to a new country as mine did when I was in elementary school. It’s a natural way to build the ability to travel between worlds and adjust to cultural differences while maintaining your core identity. If this experience has not been yours, you may have to work harder to achieve the same results. But you can restructure your thinking, just as an organization like Starbucks can restructure its key elements.

Think of the corporate neuro system as its recruitment, hiring, and promotion policies. The interviews, performance reviews, customer service training, and mentorship programs are neuro pathways in the system’s decision making. Given that the whole is the sum of its parts, training needs to be customized for each part. Ongoing training shapes awareness, sensitive policies, and corporate decisions, maximizing the competence of the entire organization. (See Un-Bias Guide for Leaders)

Success & Failures of Unconscious Bias Training

There are times when training fails, as in the case of the Google engineer, but not all gains are on an individual basis. The corporate culture can be transformed when policies reflect the organization’s increased awareness and sensitivity to biases. When recruitment, mentoring, and promotion reflect competence and wise decisions regarding diversity, the training has been a success.



5 thoughts on “The Challenge of Unconscious Bias – by Deborah Levine”

  1. I think you nailed it. It takes a lifetime to develop opinions and no one can turn that around in a day. I’ve seen you change minds in a one day seminar, but it takes practice, like you said, to make change a permanent thing. Great article!

  2. Great article Deborah. Do hope that organizations will engage you to custom design and deliver their unconscious bias training.

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