Dear Friends and Colleagues
We hope the ‘return to work’, end of Plan B or whatever this phase of our lives is called, is going well for you and you and your colleagues are adjusting and adapting.
Last time I promised a few words on Unconscious Bias training and why there is so much about it to be wary of.
UB training is supposed to be a solution to a problem. And the problem is the continuing prevalence of unequal outcomes at work. After decades of anti-discrimination and equality legislation and with views on formerly contentious issues such as race and sexual orientation becoming more liberal, what could possibly explain the persistence of inequitable disparities for certain groups of people in relation to recruitment, promotion and reward?
Then a magic bullet appeared. In 1995 two American psychologists published a paper which described “an indirect, unconscious, or implicit mode of operation for attitudes and stereotypes”. They invented the Implicit-Association Test (IAT), claimed it could measure biases that were unconscious and made it available for free. Every D&I strategy in the known world now had Unconscious Bias (UB) training as a core element.
Yet bias persists.
It sounds a bit simple, but if we are trying to solve a problem we need to know what’s causing it? With bias we need to understand whether it’s deliberate, unintentional or unconscious?
Let’s take the statistically unlikely composition of those who occupy the top three hundred roles in the FTSE 100 companies. I counted them in 2016. There are more White men called John, David and Andrew who are Chair, Chief Exec and Chief Finance Officer in those businesses than there are women or people from Black and Asian backgrounds.
But what is happening here? Is it outright sexism and racism that is causing this? There are undoubtedly people recruiting who are explicitly prejudiced. However there is an increasing amount of research which shows that we favour members of our own social groups. It is arguable that the reason for the continuing replication of the same kind of people at the top of these companies lies in what those recruiting are valuing in their future colleagues. To be a company director you need to have already been a director. In Financial Services further pressure in this direction is explicitly reinforced by the Regulator. The processes, criteria and metrics for selection success favour what those in post already bring. The outcome is discriminatory but the intention is by-and-large not. It’s in-group favouring not out-group hostility.
Biases are learned and we apply them automatically.
To give you a small example, I was once standing by the bus stop and a black guy drove past in a flash BMW. I thought “I wonder who he is?”. He was fairly swiftly followed by a white guy in an equally flash convertible and I thought “Nice car”. Years of seeing black guys in sharp cars on TV and in the movies had made a deep – largely negative – impression. There was nothing ‘unconscious’ about it. I could recognise my own bias and do something about it.
I am not holding myself up. I get things wrong the whole time like everyone else. But once we tell each other that our biases are unconscious and, more than that, everybody has them, we relax. It’s an ‘Oh Phew’ moment. ‘Oh Phew, you mean it’s not just me. You mean everybody’s biased?’ Our responsibility for challenging them starts to diminish and, worse than that, the more bias is confirmed as universal, the more UB training ends up confirming rather than challenging our views.
To help us through this I coined an acronym: RAGE.
Agree that it is damaging,
Genuinely want to change it and
Engage actively to do so.
Honesty about our preconceptions about people, our ability to share our curiosity to adjust them and then being prepared to make ‘mistakes’ and let others make ‘mistakes’ too are all key to our ability to learn and change.
Also we need to re-design our processes of recruitment, promotion and appraisal so that we give ourselves the chance to make better decisions about other people.
I enlarge on this in the book and suggest practical tools you can use to redesign recruitment and use project work and collaboration to challenges bias rather than training.
1. Here’s some great research on the failing of Unconscious Bias training:
Everybody’s Biased, So I Can Be Too Insights from Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt. Written by Carlos Santos
Condoning stereotyping? How awareness of stereotyping prevalence impacts expression of stereotypes. Duguid, M. M., & Thomas-Hunt, M. C. (2015). Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 343–359.
I also recorded a very short video raising these issues which you could use as a talking point with your teams.
Why conflict is inevitable because we’re human. It’s not whether we have it but how we deal with it that matters
2. The video
3. Buy the book here:
“The Power of Difference”