THE BLOG
01/15/2016 11:08 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2017

Unconscious Bias -- Making Millions From Theory

In management today the term 'Unconscious Bias' (implicit bias) is now mainstream and, as an intervention, unconscious bias training continues a pace as organizations invest millions every year to give their employees this training.

Having worked in the field of Neuropsychology, I accept that the concept of bias is undisputed and remain an avid advocate of the great psychologist Kahneman's work in this area. What I question is how unconscious bias is presented and implemented. Simply because the concept of bias stems from scientific evidence does not mean it is easy to erase or correct biases in we complex human beings.

Let me begin by defining what unconscious bias is: it refers to a bias that happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Unconscious bias in the field of diversity and inclusion is reflected in our prejudices and stereotypes that are deeply seated within us.as a result of our socialization. In a training program people take tests that ascertain where their biases lie and the rationale is that once we are aware of our biases we can train ourselves to think differently and subsequently change our actions.

I believe that simply training people to understand where their biases are is a waste of time. And here is why: training assumes that having taken a test to identify what your biases are, you will be equipped with an awareness that will help you to correct your thinking as you are better placed to censor them. My take is that exposing bias does not make it evaporate. Exposure may help you to gain insight and the assumption is that you will reflect on these insights but it is not guaranteed to change your behavior. Controversially, I believe that it suits many to hover under the umbrella of unconscious bias as a way of legitimizing their prejudices. If we were 100% honest, we know our prejudices without having to be made aware of them via a test.

Research has also provided evidence that in some cases, unconscious bias training has increased defensiveness, reinforced stereotypes, contributed to stonewalling, which ultimately are all expressed through anger, frustration, and, resentment. Underlying these emotions is fear. Fear of losing power, fear of losing status, fear of losing rewards, fear of the unknown; fear of undermining credibility, fear of our own ignorance and, fear of how people with different opinions will change the ways we do things around here.

Further, dominant groups in an organization in relation to gender, race, nationality, as well as, dominant ways of working, are all motivated to maintain the status quo. Dominance amounts to power. Why would you want to give your power away or even share some of it?

Fear and power are at the heart of keeping things the same. So as to address fear and power we need to plough into the root of emotions. Once we know where the emotions stem from then we can begin to plant the seeds for new behaviors. Other organizational concepts such as 'fit' and 'values' (also corresponding to we like people who are like us) are equally contentious and make up a part of the equation that is organizational culture.

As architects of the organizational culture, leaders must put their heads above the parapet by being explicit about what is accepted and, what is not and when terms are breached, apply sanctions. Leaders need to foster transparency and accountability when dealing with all employees; Leaders need to steer and position the anchor in the right direction by providing adequate resources to root out bad practices; Leaders need to lead by example through connecting to others and collaborating across divisions; and leaders need to quadruple their efforts in communication by engaging all employees in robust conversations.

It is our state of thinking that is reflected in the state of the culture that will facilitate corrective action. The application of unconscious bias is not sustainable if it continues to be presented to organizations in its current form - as a training program. If you remain stuck in training then you are simply dabbling in theory. It is time to move from the theory to the practical.

By examining emotions and behaviors we can begin to interrogate the organizational culture so that it mirrors that of a globalized world. Adopting a systemic approach to examining organizational culture will help organizations determine what structures, systems and processes facilitate diversity and inclusion and which don't. This is a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion as D&I is not simply about identity. It is also about our different ways of thinking and different ways of behaving in different contexts. Let us embrace and leverage all that is good about difference through pragmatic means.