Why Has the ROI on Unconscious Bias Training Been Stubbornly Low?

Recently I was asked to deliver a talk to over a thousand people on unconscious bias. It’s not one of my favourite topics, but it narrowly beats the time that I was asked to deliver a workshop on harassment and discrimination – not exactly a barrel of laughs.

Unconscious bias training is under the spotlight. It’s been over 20 years since the research into implicit association led to its explosion in the early 2000s, and yet most organisations remain fairly homogenous.

If we use diversity in the boardroom as an indicator of true progress, it would be difficult to argue that there has been a decent return on the investment made by countless firms in unconscious bias training. On top of that, factor in the time and money spent on programmes that aim to ‘fix’ those that are not able to break through the glass ceiling, and it begs the legitimate but uncomfortable question of whether this type of training is paying dividends.

In July 2020, there were more CEO’s in the FTSE 100 named ‘Peter’ than there were females. And in February 2021, it was reported that the FTSE 100 had zero leaders who are radicalised as black, in any of the top 3 positions in the company – Chair, CEO or CFO. Statistics on disability and LGBTQ+ representation in leadership are not readily available; although, in 2014, Tim Cooke became the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Regardless of how much has been invested in this area, the dial hasn’t moved much, especially in the upper echelons. Following the Trump administration’s parting shot, some organisations, including the UK Government, have decided to abandon it altogether. Yet, there is a real danger that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In my humble opinion: part of the problem with unconscious bias training of old is that its purpose was confused. It had the potential to shame, demonise, victimise or absolve completely. It was the panacea to all Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) ‘issues’ even though we know that the challenges of creating a truly diverse and inclusive workplace are complex. The reasons for under-representation or exclusion for one particular group may not be the same for another and differs along the employee journey of selection, management and promotion. Even within groups, there may be complex subtleties, and an unconscious bias training ‘blue pill’ does not fix everything.

Does that mean that it serves no purpose and should be scrapped? Not necessarily. As a society, we are more aware of unconscious bias than ever before. We now need to move beyond awareness to training that drives action. Talk is cheap, and too many companies have been talking the talk without walking the walk. Those that have made concerted attempts, with initiatives like reverse mentoring, employee resource groups, and diversity councils, have still found things have not shifted enough. So, we need to focus our attention on creating solutions that are not performative, copy-cat actions, chasing the latest fad, or jumping on the bandwagon.

Learning about bias still has its place in D&I but not through the narrow lens of implicit association, which was largely designed around race and gender. We all employ biases every day in the thousands of decisions we make. As individuals, teams and companies, it is useful to understand how these biases, also known as mental shortcuts, can and often do lead to suboptimal decisions across a broad range of challenges such as allocation of resources, product and market strategy as well as who to hire and fire. When considered in this broad context, bias ‘training’ becomes less politicised, less emotive, and there are practical thinking strategies that can be taught to counter the bias. Part of the problem with unconscious bias training is it has been taught as a human wiring ‘issue’ rather than an analytical problem to solve.

Training to create real inclusion, where people from all walks of life can feel like they belong, cannot be a one size fits all. Whilst there are similarities, dominant biases and D&I challenges do differ based on the type of company, location, culture and objectives. There are no silver bullets, and the appropriate training needs to focus on delivering genuine, lasting change in a way that is right for that organisation, its unique purpose and strategy.


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