We all hold some type of unconscious bias or stereotype – an unsupported opinion in favor of or against someone or something – that we aren’t even aware of.
Stereotyping results from our need to categorize experiences into a shorthand that helps us make decisions more quickly.
However, those unconscious biases can harm individuals—and companies. Unconscious biases surface through microaggressions, comments and actions that harbor a prejudice toward someone, most commonly a member of a marginalized group.
For businesses, the damage can be significant.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, shared the results of her organization’s study on the negative impacts of unconscious bias.
- Costly disengagement lowers productivity. Employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely (20% vs 7%) to be disengaged at work. That kind of clock-punching is costly. Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year.
- Reduced retention impacts individuals and organizations. Those who perceive bias are more than three times as likely (31% vs 10%) to say that they plan to leave their current jobs within the year.
- When people withhold ideas it stymies innovation. Those who perceive bias are 2.6 times more likely (34% vs 13%) to say that they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions over the previous six months.
To better understand unconscious bias, it’s helpful to define the kinds of behaviors that result from it. Here are some developed by Horace McCormick, Jr., at the University of North Carolina.
- Affinity bias—The tendency to gravitate towards people who remind us of ourselves.
- Halo effect—The tendency to see someone in a positive light because of their title or because you like them.
- Perception bias—The tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups that make objective decision-making impossible.
- Confirmation bias—The tendency for people to only seek out information that confirms their preexisting beliefs or assumptions.
- Group-think—The tendency for people to go along with the group rather than voicing their individual thoughts and beliefs.
To combat this, many organizations have embarked on training as a solution.
A study from Harvard Business Review suggests there are four main reasons why bias training fails.
- The training is perfunctory and low quality (it just ticks off a box).
- Leadership support is missing.
- Management is ill-equipped with the tools and strategies needed to support a sustained effort.
- Leaders don’t frame training within the larger organizational commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Although unconscious bias training is important these days for all employees, the bottom line is that not all training programs are equal,” says Susan Madsen, Professor of Leadership, Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.
Research does show, however, that training can be effective if carefully and strategically designed using research-based teaching and training.
First, the training must be high quality, nuanced, based on believable real-life scenarios and offered within a judgment-free setting.
Second, it should be included as part of a larger commitment that takes organizational structure and process into account; although training could come at the start of that process to build initial awareness.
And third, it must be consistent, ongoing, have opportunities for feedback and include supportive follow-up for both employees and managers.
Google’s research on its own unconscious bias training had incredibly positive results.
Google launched an experiment during new hire orientation where Googlers were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: (1) participate in a live workshop, (2) watch the self-study video of the workshop, or (3) receive no unconscious bias training (control group).
Through a self-reported survey, the team found that Googlers who went through the workshop showed statistically significant increases in awareness and understanding of unconscious bias, which motivated them to overcome it, and those who watched the self-study video scored on par with those who went through the live workshop.
Results persisted even one month after the workshop, where a follow-up survey revealed that workshop participants were significantly more likely to perceive Google’s culture as fair, objective, and as valuing diversity, than those in the control group.”
Training & education
Training works best when combined with education and included within the context of a larger organizational commitment.
For most organizations, that will fall under the banner of diversity, equity and inclusion training (DEI), as unconscious bias is an underpinning for the concepts that should be covered, such as understanding personal biases, addressing microaggressions, respecting and appreciating different identities.
And signs are emerging that DEI training can impact perceptions.
For instance, at my organization, Kantola, recent research with 8,000 participants at 215 organizations found that 96% reported having a better understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion and why it matters in the workplace.
Most said they were better prepared to have a conversation with co-workers about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and that training revealed how individuals experience the same workplace differently based on their identities.”
From this, it’s clear that bias training can:
- Create awareness that biases exist. Above everything else, the first step in the education and training process is to create a shared understanding that we all have unconscious biases—everyone, no exclusions. Establishing the premise that no one is being targeted and that we’re all in this together will put people at ease.
- Reveal our personal biases. From general awareness can come personal revelations. When presented with relatable, real-life scenarios, employees and managers can uncover their own biases. Remember, they are unconscious biases. As they come to the forefront, this may create some discomfort, which will be eased if done in a safe and judgment-free environment.
- Offer tools and strategies to modify behavior. Providing participants with knowledge is essential. But following up with solutions is the key. It’s not enough to offer examples. Employees need explanations and guidance on what to do when faced with specific situations. And that learning requires practice and repetition to be effective.
- Empower people to support each other. One of the most powerful aspects of education and training is its ability to create a self-sustaining support system to help tackle unconscious bias. Establishing allies and advocates within the organization who help to advance the needs of traditionally marginalized groups can foster a structure where behaviors like microaggression cannot thrive.
- Unify around a common cause. The camaraderie of working through an issue together, especially one as difficult as uncovering and tackling unconscious bias, may help unify employees around a common cause. As long as everyone feels they are participants, rather than targets, they will be more likely to help carry the mantel of fairness and respect that this process will bring.
According to Madsen, “Investing in the right employee education is critical to having a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace culture. When all employees thrive, businesses will benefit. And high-quality unconscious bias training can help. Instead of focusing on quick fixes geared toward convincing employees, customers and other stakeholders that you are doing the right thing, seek to implement longer-term initiatives that have been proven to work.”