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Unconscious Bias – The Baby and the Bathwater

Unconscious Bias training seems to have been unceremoniously dumped across many government and civil service departments. “Oh, you’re still doing that are you?” I’ve been asked on several occasions recently. From what I can tell, it’s because of the research evidence that points to it ‘not working’. No one seems to have questioned whether the problem is with the whole concept or with the way that training has largely been delivered thus far.

If we simply teach people about how the automatic part of the brain (the Chimp, as Steve Peters puts it) is in charge of our perception and decision-making way more than the rational, intelligent part (the Human), then we leave them only with the conclusion that they need to try harder to be aware of their biases. And increased awareness can help, but the problem is that we cannot think our way out of bias because much of it is unconscious, beyond the realm of awareness.

I have been working in this field for 25 years and I’m constantly seeking to develop awareness for myself and others. So, when, not so long ago, a training participant said to me “My manager will be a bit late” and I said, “Do you know what time he’ll be here?” and they replied “She should be here by half past”, you can imagine how I felt! I was mortified, any aspiration to being an ally for women just went up in flames. But wait a minute - it’s not surprising that it popped out like that, without thinking, given the long-engrained nature of gender stereotypes around men as leaders and women as carers, etc. I view these little reminders of our own bias as gifts – golden nuggets of insight into our own unconscious. This increases awareness, but then what? We need to take action! I’ve developed a list of words (and names – ever made a wrong assumption about sex or race here?) that are potential triggers for bias, and I’ve turned them into action triggers for me – I hear the word, I pause, take a breath and then respond. The key to minimising bias is to SLOW THINGS DOWN, allow the Human to catch up to the Chimp and taking a breath is a great way to do this as it helps get rid of the stress hormones your Chimp is feeding off.

That’s an example of a personal / individual action to reduce bias. What about actions a team or whole organisation can take? Let’s have a meeting! You know what meetings can be like: the Chair (often a senior person) kicks off, explains the issue, gives their take on it, and asks everyone for their opinion. There’s a discussion, although some people don’t say a word. So and so gets on their hobby horse and bangs on about something. Eyes roll. Time’s running out, everyone’s a bit stressed and hungry, looking at watches and thinking about what they need to do next. And this is the point when decisions are made! Meetings are a minefield for unconscious biases and exclusion. This is where you should be unleashing the power of diverse thinking to solve problems, but instead, you’ve just promoted hierarchy bias and group-think and you’ve alienated people a bit further.

I think we need to re-imagine the meeting, building in new habits that encourage participation for all and understand how our bodies and brains work. We also need to go beyond the usual ‘staff training’ and persuade the people who can authorise and promote these practical changes that unconscious bias work should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

Please make use of my Simple Nudges For More Inclusive Meetings guide:

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