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Unconscious bias training: motivating employees to care

July 12, 2023

Unconscious bias persists in our society and workplaces. The fact that it happens without us realizing it makes it that much harder to avoid. So how helpful is it to talk about unconscious bias in workplace training? Can teaching unconscious bias even backfire?

Some advocates fear that by presenting bias as something automatic and unavoidable, we will reduce employees’ willingness to tackle it. How do you stop something you don’t even realize you’re doing? Worse, by teaching that everybody has unconscious biases, bias can start to seem “normal,” reducing the motivation to address it. Research also suggests that people see unconscious bias as less morally blameworthy than conscious discrimination, which may also reduce the motivation to change it.

Are we better off not educating employees about unconscious bias at all?

Not quite.

For one thing, unconscious bias remains a significant issue that we need to combat. In an era where overt discrimination is (thankfully) no longer socially acceptable, unconscious biases are the most common form of discrimination we see in workplaces, and they can cause a lot of harm. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. Unless we’re aware of our biases, we have no hope of eliminating them.

For another, as my colleague Suhaib has written, employers can be held liable for employee behaviour that is driven by unconscious bias. So employers must take steps to address bias, including through appropriate training.

There is also research to suggest that being aware of their “bias blindspots” can make employees pay more attention to diversity training, as they are more likely to feel the training applies to them.

We have to talk about unconscious bias. What matters is how we talk about it.

First, although bias often happens without us realizing it, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless to stop it. Once we become aware of our unconscious biases, there are many practical strategies to reduce them. By emphasizing what all employees can do about unconscious bias, we can motivate them to combat it, instead of demotivating them by suggesting bias is unavoidable.

Second, Dr. Eden King, a leading researcher in the field, recommends emphasizing that most people are trying to overcome their biases. Teaching that everyone has unconscious bias can make bias feel “normal,” which may reduce our motivation to challenge it. But we can avoid that problem by also teaching that striving to overcome our biases is “normal.” Humans are social animals, and if we feel that everyone is challenging their unconscious biases, we’ll be motivated to do the same.

Third, while unconscious bias is seen as less morally blameworthy, that can actually be a feature, not a bug, of unconscious bias education. Recognizing that bias happens unconsciously can reduce defensiveness and backlash, precisely because it doesn’t trigger feelings of shame and blame. This leaves training participants more open to exploring and combatting their biases. We don’t want participants to lose their motivation because they feel unconscious bias is “not so bad,” but this, too, can be addressed through how we talk about it. By focusing on the harmful impact of behaviour instead of the intention behind it, we can tap into participants’ natural compassion as motivation to address unconscious bias. It’s because our intentions are positive that we want to do everything we can to avoid causing harm, even unintentionally.

Unconscious bias is real, harmful, and must be addressed. Training that is nuanced, sensitive and compassionate can overcome some of the pitfalls in traditional unconscious bias education, motivate employees to confront their own biases, and promote positive change in workplaces.