Over the past several years, Unconscious Bias has become one of the focus points of diversity and inclusion work in organizations and in society as a whole. We have come a long way since I published my initial thought paper on the subject more than eight years ago. Lately, the topic has appeared all around us, including in an extraordinary talk by James Comey, the Director of the FBI.
We believe that the right kind of approach to identifying and navigating these unconscious judgments can improve the quality and experience of work in organizations, and we have been working with organizations of all kinds all over the world to address these issues. One big piece of that effort, of course, is education. Unconscious bias training is one of the most highly requested diversity and inclusion education program, but the bigger question is, “What do we need to do to truly change the way our organizations function so that we can create substantive, sustainable change?”
The purpose of this article is to identify four intervention strategies that we must use if we are to take the conversation about Unconscious Bias from awareness and interest to action and sustainability.
Providing unconscious bias education may be insufficient in and of itself, yet it is still an essential part of any sustainable strategy. Education can come in many forms, whether presented by an external facilitator, internal trainers, eLearning, web seminars, etc. We routinely use all of these, and often in blended solutions. The key is what gets communicated. In our education efforts we attempt to focus on three areas:
- The “What?” about unconscious bias. What it is and how it happens. Research teaches us that a better understanding of how we think can help people make more conscious decisions;
- The “So what?” which for us always involves experiential exercises and sharing from a host of studies that are demonstrating the impact on organizational decision-making; and
- The “Now what?” which involves looking at things that people and organizations can do to be more mindful in their practices.
We want people to be left with a sense of how they are thinking, but also, and critically, to understand the normalcy of bias and redirect from the traditional “good person/bad person” approach to the subject.
Priming is the implicit tendency to respond to something based on expectations that are created by a previous experience or association. We all know that if we are thinking about something, we see it all around us. Once people have been educated in the distinctions of Unconscious Bias, we encourage our client organizations to begin to develop priming techniques which can prepare people to enter processes (e.g. interviewing, performance review, etc.) with a greater sense of mindfulness about their decision-making process. We have done this by developing a whole host of performance support tools (PSTs) that only take a couple of minutes to review, but remind them of things to pay attention to. One group of these PSTs are mini-videos called Skill Pills that can be downloaded on a manager’s smart phone and watched for a couple of minutes to get them in the right mindset for the interaction. For other organizations, we have created decision tools, a series of questions for people to consider before they do an interview. A couple of examples:
- Does anything about this resume remind you of yourself? Is that relevant to the job at hand? (For example, they may be a musician and so are you, but does their job require music?)
- Do they remind you of somebody else? Is that a good or bad memory?
Structures and Systems
The third area involves looking at the structures and systems within the organization and seeing if there are new strategies or ways of doing things that might make us more conscious about the way we are making decisions. These can infuse themselves throughout the organization and are largely smaller things that can support people in making better decisions. For example:
- When you are doing recruiting, have you considered removing names from resumes to avoid bias, or have you checked your anchoring biases (e.g. schools or “qualifications”) to be sure that the things that you are looking for are actually valid predictors of a person’s viability as a candidate?
- When you are hiring, do you thoughtfully explore the assumptions that are made or the language in references to be sure that they don’t reflect bias on the part of the reference. (Research shows that references for men often contain more action-oriented behavior, while references for women talk more about interpersonal skills). Do you use diverse panels for hiring? Have you created clear decision criteria for the position so you are hiring for the position and not only for what “feels right” to you?
The most advanced organizations look at a whole range of structures and systems throughout their organizations to see how they can modify them in ways that mitigate the impact of bias.
Finally, we help our clients create ways to track results. This can be done in many ways, but it always involves some kind of scorecard or dashboard that goes beyond simple representation. We also encourage our clients to “batch” metrics by looking at related patterns of how certain areas impact others. This can be very helpful in converting individual measurements into a more complex understanding of the system at play, and in identifying unintentional negative consequences of well-meaning activities.
Unconscious Bias work may, in fact, be the next horizon of diversity and inclusion work. It gives us the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of how we make decisions and why we react differently to different kinds of people, both as individuals and as organizations. But simply relying on education will not do the trick. We have to focus on creating systems approaches that can create more inclusive organizations.