What is implicit bias training, and does it work?
Caroline Arnold is a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, specialising in equality, diversity, and inclusion, as well as unconscious bias at EW Group.
“Implicit bias training doesn’t work” is the message from a number of recent editorials. However, the reality is that this could not be further from the truth.
Many experts in the field maintain that implicit bias training is a vital tool in the fight against institutional bigotry, and that the problems associated with it are often to do with poor or partial implementation, rather than inherent failings.
The controversy around the efficacy of implicit bias training masks a complex truth, where the training itself must be part of a larger strategy, the two working in tandem. But to understand why some claim that implicit bias training doesn’t work, we first need to answer the question of what is implicit bias training.
What is implicit bias training?
Implicit bias refers to the idea that our ‘pattern-seeking’ brains tend to make generalised assumptions about groups of people, even though these ‘patterns’ are really just cultural stereotypes.
Not dissimilar to unconscious bias, implicit bias negatively affects working environments by attaching inaccurate (and often offensive) stereotypes to broad swathes of people. These biases can be ‘negative’, or ‘positive’.
Unfortunately, implicit bias is much more common than we like to admit, and that’s where training comes in. Implicit bias training involves recalibrating our cognitive mindsets to approach others as individuals, colleagues, and even friends – and not as culturally stereotyped projections. This doesn’t just create a happier, more harmonious workforce, but can have wide-ranging benefits across your whole organisation.
How it affects your organisation
Implicit bias isn’t just an interpersonal affair. These negative prejudices can impact your organisation at every level, from the top, to the bottom. According to Forbes, implicit bias costs companies up to $550 billion dollars every year in the United States alone.
Without professional implicit bias training, it tends to manifest throughout organisations. For a start, recruitment is seriously challenged by implicit biases, as the best minority candidates are often turned away, or even dissuaded from applying at all by an unintentionally hostile workplace culture.
Even worse, minority employees are far more likely to leave workplaces with high levels of bias, leading to a low retention rate of diverse staff. As more diverse workplaces tend to be more creative, productive, and show higher rates of long-term profitability, this vicious cycle will only do more damage the longer it is allowed to thrive.
What implicit bias training can achieve for you
Implicit bias training aims to tackle these problems at the root, helping your employees understand, and come to terms with what implicit bias means for them. Even more critical publications agree that implicit bias training is vital to raising awareness of the effects of bias – and that this is the first step on the road to building an inclusive office culture.
Training can help challenge deep-rooted biases, and encourage more open communication between colleagues about the problems presented by bias. Moreover, successfully implemented programs have long-lasting organisation-wide effects, such as significantly improving productivity and employee engagement.
In turn, this ‘virtuous circle’ of creating an inclusive office culture vastly improves recruitment, helping attract the best possible and most diverse candidates. In turn, this welcoming environment will help keep employee retention rates high – and thus prevent you from having to waste time and resources on constant recruitment.
When implicit bias training doesn’t work…
Sometimes implicit bias training doesn’t work – when it’s done badly. When it comes to challenging implicit bias, laying the groundwork is vital to success – and that starts with a plan.
Implicit bias training is a tool designed to address specific problems – but without clearly established, achievable goals with a streamlined process for review and auditing, no diversity initiative can hope to make real progress. Another oft-forgotten problem is that of communication; if your colleagues don’t understand why implicit bias training is necessary, you risk creating a hostile audience, or even worse, actually increasing resistance to diversity!
Many organisations opt for simply running ‘one-off’ sessions, which, even when run by professionals, just aren’t enough to rewire decades of cognitive programming in one sitting. Even more problematically, many organisations take a personal approach to bias by assuming that it can only be an individual problem, and not one requiring a systematic response. In both of these cases, even the best implicit bias training doesn’t work.
Another potential pitfall is the problem of project management – if this is simply an exercise in public relations without a substantive strategy behind it, then any implicit bias training will have failed before its even begun. Implicit bias training works best when board members and managers understand its benefits, and without leadership buy-in, any diversity initiatives will struggle to get off the ground.
Another common mistake is assuming that implicit bias training is a ‘cure-all’, that can simply ‘fix’ any organisations problems with bias. To be successful, training must be part of a broader, comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing unconscious bias wherever it’s found – unfortunately, without strategy, success is very remote indeed. Unless your strategy is consistently built around creating an inclusive culture across your organisation, implicit bias training doesn’t work.
… and when it does
Although poor implementation does prevent implicit bias training from working as it should, when approached in a coherent, systematic manner, training doesn’t just work – it wins.
Setting clear goals or diversity targets will provide a keystone for organisational anti-bias work, especially if it makes use of professional diversity audits to streamline targets, and has a consistent review process to guarantee success. It’s also important to prioritise communication; not just of what you want to achieve, but why. Ensuring that your colleagues know why these initiatives are important means that they’ll be all the more committed to seeing them succeed.
Another key mistake to avoid is treating individual implicit bias training sessions as a panacea. Single-day or even a few short sessions don’t eliminate bias – in fact, most studies suggest that regular, in-depth sessions throughout the year, especially those that cater to full organisations, achieve real successes in long-term bias reduction.
While every level of your organisation needs to be on board with implicit bias training, securing leadership buy-in for any diversity initiative is the key to success. Executive diversity and implicit bias training is a must, and whether you opt for executive coaching, facilitation, or even take steps towards building a dedicated Diversity and Inclusion team, when your leadership is unbiased, everyone thrives.
One final, and very important, point remains; implicit bias training doesn’t work unless its part of a coherent, well-planned diversity strategy. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that to see real success, implicit bias training needs to be grounded in an organisational program of change. Rather than being a ‘temporary fix’, implicit bias training should support your overall diversity and inclusion strategy, because together, there’s no better antidote to bias.
When it’s done right, implicit bias training changes your organisation for the better. EW Group has helped build inclusive cultures in some of the largest organisations across the United Kingdom – and with our success stories, you know you’re in safe hands when it comes to implicit bias training.
Taking the next steps with your organisation
As the saying goes, inclusive cultures aren’t built in a day, so the sooner you address implicit bias, the sooner you start reaping the rewards. With EW Group, you’re not just getting leading diversity and inclusion training, you’re getting implicit bias training tailored specifically for your organisation.
Whatever stage of your diversity transformation you’re at, from diversity auditing and strategy design, to dedicated implicit bias training sessions for managers and staff, we take pride in making sure that our services work for you.
Implicit bias training done well can make your organisation more effective, more profitable, and more tolerant, so why wait?