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How unconscious bias training helps build safety on your team

September 13, 2022 - 15 min read
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    Generally, when we implement a new training program in the workplace, we want it to be effective. Training is offered as a way to improve communication, boost productivity, and create a better workplace culture. Now, it doesn’t always work the first time. To stop your corporate training programs from putting your team to sleep, you might need to do some trial and error.

    That’s okay with some topics — but not when it comes to DEIB. Many individuals working in corporate environments find themselves in contact with people from all backgrounds. This kind of deep-level diversity is critical to both personal and professional growth. Diversity of experience, demographic, and thought causes a kind of productive friction. People’s thoughts and expectations are challenged and — most of the time — they grow as a result. But although a certain amount of productive conflict isn’t bad, it can also leave people feeling uncomfortable. In order for friction to be valuable, it has to be balanced with belonging and respect.

    Unfortunately, we’re all subject to unconscious bias — and unlike other cognitive biases, we may be completely unaware that it’s affecting our behavior. Workplace and interpersonal challenges that seem persistent may actually be the cause of subtle, non-productive friction. Unconscious biases can be a quiet force wreaking havoc on all areas of your organization, from recruiting to management. And there’s no doubting the impact it has on salaries, promotions, and retention.  A study by global advisory group Coqual identified that when implicit bias is rampant in an organization, people stop referring their networks there — and they start looking for another job.

    Download The Connection Crisis: Why community matters in the new world of work

    The answer would seem to be unconscious bias training — but how do you point out what can’t be seen? And how do you avoid putting others on edge in the process? The short answer is that it’s not easy. Keep reading to unpack the scientific and social factors behind implicit bias, how it shows up within organizations, and how to implement an unconscious bias training program that makes a difference for your team.

    What is unconscious bias?

    Our brains have tens of thousands of thoughts and take in millions of stimuli every single day. While we’re aware of them all on some level, processing each one individually isn’t terribly efficient. As a result, our brains (in an attempt to speed things along and refocus cognitive horsepower) create mental shortcuts. What the mind sees as efficient, however, is often just reductive.

    Unconscious bias is the result of our brain’s attempt to categorize new experiences in light of old ones. While it’s an effective way to speed up decision-making, it often results in stereotyping and discriminatory behavior. When the Implicit Association Test (IAT) was debuted in 1998, 90% to 95% of participants indicated hidden biases.

    What are the types of unconscious bias?

    There are many different types of unconscious biases that can show up both in and out of the workplace. Although these cognitive biases have applications to DEIB, they can manifest in any number of real-life situations. Here are some of the forms of bias likely to affect a company or organization:

    Affinity bias

    The affinity bias (or in-group bias) is our tendency to prefer people with whom we have something in common. At work, we might show a preference for people with a similar demographic background or people in our department. We may subtly distance ourselves or act cold toward people who “just don’t get us.”

    Confirmation bias

    Our brains have a preference for information that confirms what we already believe to be true. As a result, to keep our cognitive compartments neat and tidy, we often discard information that would challenge our own biases. This particular implicit bias can be innocuous (as when we look for “proof” that our favorite ice cream flavor is the best). But if you’re not paying attention, your brain may be interpreting innocent behaviors as proof of dangerous stereotypes.

    Fundamental attribution error

    People often believe that their own actions are a result of the circumstances that they find themselves in. However, we tend to believe that other people act the way they do because of stable personality traits or motives. We might rationalize at work that we were late to a meeting because of traffic. However, we might describe a colleague who was late because of the same traffic as “lazy” or “disorganized.”

    Attentional bias

    You buy a new laptop, and suddenly it seems like everyone has the same one. You buy tickets to an event, and now it’s all anyone is talking about. While it’s possible that you might be a trendsetter, it’s more likely that your brain is now primed to notice information relevant to an important event or purchase. At work, you might make a tiny mistake in a presentation, but spend weeks convinced everyone is gossiping about you.

    Halo effect

    The halo effect has to do with our impression of others. It’s how researchers describe the tendency to use one factor (whether positive or negative) to influence our perception of someone in other areas. For example, you might have a hard time believing that a good friend was in the wrong in an argument with their spouse. In the workplace, you may find yourself excusing the poor performance of a colleague who always has something kind to say.


    What is the purpose of unconscious bias training?

    It’s critical that your team understands the concept of unconscious bias. Because of it’s nature, we really don’t know that we’re doing it until we know that we’re doing it. A well designed implicit bias training aims to help people develop meta-cognition (the ability to think about their own thoughts). When they can do that, they can strengthen their ability to notice and challenge their own biases.

    In one experience recounted on LinkedIn, a woman shared the comments she heard from her male manager when returning from maternity leave. He assumed that the employee would want to stay home with her child after leave. While it seems like a fairly innocent comment, working parents often feel torn and placed under immense pressure. His assumption stuck with her, and she confronted him (kindly) about it.

    In doing so, they were able to work together to identify the impact that his words had on her — and possibly other employees. 

    Common pitfalls with unconscious bias training

    This case study is a best case scenario for the upsides of unconscious bias training. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go so smoothly. Uprooting implicit prejudice can hurt people on all sides of an interaction. 

    This kind of corporate training isn’t going to be easy. If you want your diversity and belonging initiative to move the needle, you should watch out for these common pitfalls.

    1. Too much accountability

    The biggest sticking point in implicit bias and diversity training is the risk of people taking offense or becoming triggered. That’s normal and to be expected. It’s hard for many people to hear that they have bias, and even harder to believe it when it lives outside of conscious awareness. Hardest of all is the idea that they may have inadvertently hurt someone with their comments or assumptions.

    2. Not enough accountability

    On the other hand, unconscious bias training might be letting people off the hook for doing deeper, self-reflective work. Forbes cites a “growing body of research” that indicates “when people are provided with evidence about the stereotypes they have, it reinforce[s] these beliefs and even encourage[s] people to condone them.” 

    The tendency is to want to make coaching around a sensitive topic palatable, but managers shouldn’t go overboard. Because of the way cognitive biases are formed, challenging them will likely trigger cognitive dissonance. You want to manage it, but that discomfort is necessary for growth.


    3. Not enough face time

    Online training is a useful tool — especially for remote teams that need to work asynchronously. However, it’s very easy for people to mentally “check out” of an online training. Digital platforms often offer less opportunity for engagement and more opportunities to multitask. That could result in the impact of even a really well-designed training course being diminished.

    4. Too much face time

    Conversely, people need time to digest and absorb information at their own pace. Depending on how you structure your training sessions, you may have a lot of information to cover. People might feel overwhelmed, called out, or uncomfortable. If your team is fairly homogenous, members of a minority group might feel put on the spot or tokenized.

    How do you introduce unconscious bias in training?

    As a leader, one of the most effective interventions you can make is actively engaging in the work you’re asking your team to do. Leaders need to model bias-conscious behavior — even if it means that you risk saying the wrong thing or being vulnerable. 

    Not only will this behavior open the door for honest conversations and deep work within the team, but it could also improve business performance. As leaders and managers, your biases can impact all areas of operations and company culture. It affects outcomes in the recruitment process, performance reviews, retention, productivity, and job satisfaction. 

    Leaders should — if possible — engage in implicit bias training with their peers first.  The behavior and commitment of the leaders in this work are crucial to making sure it’s a safe space for everyone. 

    Managers, because they are so crucial to the employee experience and model culture, need even more attention. Rather than training with a larger group of people, managers can benefit from small group training with their peers, over time, where they can work through the real issues that come up in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. 

    Consider offering one-on-one sessions with DEIB coaches to continue the work after the training is complete.


    How to structure unconscious bias training for employees

    Every workplace will need to put together a training plan that makes sense for its organization. But whether your team is hybrid, remote, or on-site, you’ll want to be sure that the training is effective and memorable. Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you design your implicit bias training plan:

    1. Build connections

    On his site, Alan Feirer writes that “The only way to move past bias is to develop meaningful connections with others in order to see and value them.” For many people, their workplace is the most diverse network they have and their greatest source of social connection. Arguably, there’s no better place to get the variety of experience, common ground, safeguards, and the foundation of respect than the workplace. Or — at least — that should be true.

    A DEIB strategy is not something that you just “throw out there.” It happens in partnership with the people at your organization. Moreover, it won’t work without a background of relatedness and respect. And once your efforts at connection fall flat, trust and belonging tend to take a nosedive too.

    Focus on training as an opportunity to work together with your team. Share openly about the impact unconscious bias can have at work, and then create a space for people to share openly as well. 

    2. Hold yourself accountable

    When organizations go all-in on DEIB just to drop the ball a few months later, they lose the trust of their employees. Organizations that lack inclusive leadership often don’t have the follow-through to affect real change.

    If you want to make a real difference, focus on strategies, not insights. It’s not enough to just show people where their implicit and explicit biases are. You need to also teach them what to do. Track metrics related to areas of business often subject to bias (like your diversity recruiting strategy and health care for LGBTQ+ employees). Offer the opportunity to provide feedback on training modules. You might even consider hiring a DEIB consultant who can review your processes and literature for indications of ableist, gender, and racial bias.

    3. Keep the safe space open

    Unconscious bias training is ongoing work. There are training modules, group discussions, and work that needs to be done individually. When doing training amongst groups of people, there’s also a real chance that some people may not want to speak up. In some ways, once you start this kind of work, it doesn’t really end.

    Be sure to keep that safe space open with regular follow-up. Consider creating additional resources, like an employee resource group (ERG). Offer additional training modules on cognitive biases, gender bias in the workplace, and how to spot disparities when interacting with clients and customers. You can also offer coaching to managers and employees throughout your organization, giving them a space to discuss biases and automatic thoughts as they arise.

    The bad news is that once you start to understand the types of biases, you’ll begin to spot them everywhere (hello, attentional bias). But the good news is that unconscious bias training gets easier as you get used to doing the work. The time you put in upfront will transform the engagement, productivity, belonging, and trust at your organization.

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    Published September 13, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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