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When Unconscious Bias Training Does More Harm Than Good


Thu Sep 09 2021

When Unconscious Bias Training Does More Harm Than Good

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The silver lining of the past 18 months is that the demand for unconscious bias training has increased. Learning and development teams were asked to find or create unconscious bias training for employees now. Lots of organizations moved quickly and rolled out training. That seems good, right? Not necessarily.

The stakes are high. Unchecked unconscious bias leads to exclusion. And when people experience exclusion, the same neural pathways are triggered as when we experience physical pain. Plus, this topic is in the spotlight; there is pressure to deliver a program that makes an impact. Your training must hit the mark.


“I felt like I was a victim of the training.”

Oof! A Black senior executive at a tech company shared this with me about the unconscious bias training her company had her complete. When she told me more about the program, I wasn’t surprised. Bias training can cause more harm than good for several reasons, and the program she went through checked all the boxes on these common mistakes:

The program is designed and developed by a team of people who are not subject matter experts.

This is not a topic that anyone with a learning background on your team can develop a course for. Deep expertise is needed to understand the research as well as the nuance of delivering a topic that can trigger hostility and an “us versus them” way of thinking. You would never implement safety or software training that had been created by folks without expertise; the same goes for unconscious bias. Passion, good intentions, and interest do not equal expertise. The program the tech executive went through was designed by two senior L&D professionals who had a track record for creating excellent leadership development programs. However, they had no background or expertise in unconscious bias or diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The program is dominant group centered.

In most cases, this means being anchored in ideas and scenarios that are white-centered, and everyone else is “diverse.” Effective training creates the understanding that all brains are biased. Unconscious bias is not something that some people have and others do not. Effective bias training demonstrates this by delving into the neuroscience of bias and includes exercises that allow people to experience and understand some of their own implicit biases. The two senior L&D professionals who designed the tech company training—middle-aged, cisgender, able-bodied, white men.

The training focuses on understanding unconscious bias.

There is real danger in stopping at teaching about unconscious bias. In fact, it’s been shown that people who have been educated about unconscious bias but not how to interrupt it actually exhibit more biased behaviors down the road. Beware training that talks a lot about the neuroscience of unconscious bias and stops there. Knowing isn’t enough; the training must focus on doing. Effective workplace unconscious bias training for employees should be loaded with actionable, commonly shared bias interrupters that can be applied to daily work. For example, a set of behaviors for running an inclusive meeting.


One last tip: don’t make workplace unconscious bias training for employees mandatory.

Research has shown that this will backfire. That’s not too surprising, given that people generally hate being told what to do. Expect resistance if you take this approach. Instead, position the training as a benefit. That it will be good for their careers: “people who get along get ahead.”

You’ve got this. Avoid these common mistakes and confidently go forth to develop or bring in an external partner to deliver an unconscious bias program that hits the mark for your team. Good luck!

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