Leaders are addressing unconscious bias – here is what that means in practice

Three leaders in discussion

Jane Farrell is the Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability.

When unconscious bias training is applied well it transforms cultures and behaviours, ensures that diversity and inclusion are woven into every aspect of an organisation, improves business performance, and guarantees that espoused values become lived values.

Done right, it is demanding. Positively so; because it requires deepening our understanding of precisely how advantage and disadvantage play out in our organisations, building the capacity of individuals and companies to positively disrupt those patterns.

It’s so important that top teams make sure they understand what unconscious bias is and how it operates in their company, accept the ways that privilege operates (evidenced by patterns of advantage in and outside of a company) and have the skills to provide professional leadership on how they ensure they and others tackle the way bias works.

Senior leaders need to hold the narrative with confidence, and make sure that standards of behaviour, such as an anti-racist approach, are clear. It is not discretionary; it is a standard that every single person has to uphold. People must understand there are consequences if they break the rules.

Senior leaders acting bravely when it comes to fighting unconscious bias

It was great to hear Keir Starmer say he would undertake unconscious bias training and ensure all Labour party staff do so too. For leaders to say that they would benefit from this demonstrates a willingness to learn, reflect, and listen to how prejudice and discrimination work, particularly if they have never experienced racism, or anti-Semitism, or sexism themselves.

It is sometimes hard for leaders to muster up the courage to do this. Criticism will still find its way to them based on the impression that such training shouldn’t be required in the first place. However, receiving training should be viewed in a different way, and taking such training should be applauded.

Leaders should be held in high regard if they can spot their own unconscious biases and take action to tackle them. This way, acting on unconscious bias becomes something that will strengthen, not weaken leaders, putting diversity and inclusion skills on the same pedestal as managerial, budgetary, or strategic abilities.

What unconscious biases can leaders succumb to?

Most people do not wake up and think, “I am going to discriminate against Black people, Jewish people, or women in what I say or do today”. We may not intend to hurt and offend, but it is the effect of these poorly considered words and actions that leaders must take responsibility for. If someone pokes me in the eye with a stick, they may apologise, but I still have a sore eye.

Unconscious bias theory is well known these days, and there are some fantastic articles and books to read that help explain the subject. Practically, however, unconscious biases often play themselves out in the following ways:

  1. You are on an interview panel for a mid-level role. A 26-year-old walks in and you immediately begin to have reservations, even before the candidate has sat down, let alone spoken. Unconsciously, you believe that someone must be at least 35 to do this job, even though you know some people with 20 years’ experience who are mediocre.
    It’s a wobbly correlation between the numbers of years’ experience and ability to do a good job, but your poor decision making is compounded by the stereotypes and assumptions you are making about 26-year-olds. So, unaware of your bias, you potentially miss out on a candidate who might be the best person for the job, and the 26-year-old’s life chances are affected by your ignorance and lack of skill.
  2. You have an opportunity for someone to take on an exciting project for six months and you choose someone who is akin to yourself; for example, choosing a white woman over 50 rather than the 38 year-old black man who is equally skilled. You justify your decision because you have worked with the woman before and assume she can ‘hit the ground running’.

The black man understandably experiences this as another micro-aggression, feels he will not progress here. He leaves, hurt, and with his career potentially impacted, and you lose a talented manager who will cost about £30k to replace, and other Black staff begin to see the company in a negative light due to the pattern and the results of your decision making. Your organisation has lost someone and had its image damaged because you went with the choice that felt more ‘comfortable’.

Day in, day out, groups experience micro affirmations and micro aggressions. If we are on the receiving end of micro affirmations, it is sometimes genuinely difficult to spot because we are used to feeling that support and warmth. Conversely, it takes a split second to recognise when we are on the receiving end of micro aggressions as it feels all too familiar. Both experiences are patterned.

Unfairness is easy to identify, and individuals on the receiving end are often very familiar with being stereotyped, overlooked, or not listened to due to the socially pervasive nature of bias. Whether we are disadvantaged because of our sex, race, religion, or class, we have heard all the jokes, tropes, and stereotypes a thousand times before. People make assumptions such as: women who work part-time due to caring responsibilities are not committed to their jobs, people with northern accents are less intelligent, or young people are not hard-working – all of which are wrong.

Leaders today must take it upon themselves to tackle these lazy and incorrect biases. They are all sources of disadvantage and exclusion, and unconscious bias training is a powerful first step towards correcting them.

How does unconscious bias training work in practice?

Great unconscious bias training guides delegates through a process of understanding how advantage and disadvantage work in day-to-day workplaces. Tailored to the context of the organisation, there is a little theory to understand, case studies to read and watch, and ‘dilemma’ exercises to discuss.

Delegates must be guided to connect with the training on an emotional level, thereby helping them grasp the concept. They must then be provided useful tools that help them make changes in what they say and do to create inclusive cultures. Unconscious bias training must help people see the systemic and structural ways that privilege operates so they and everyone in their organisations can disrupt it.

When senior leaders put their hands up first to receive the unconscious bias training, they send out a strong positive message to all staff. They are providing professional leadership by indicating that they too must learn and be even better in the future.

Good unconscious bias training sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to training that only focuses on the science, concepts, and literature. It is stimulating, challenging, and positive, addressing individual and organisational behaviours, policies, and processes, and delivers a clear benefit to organisations, improving innovation, productivity and much more.

Following such training, leaders can stand strong, insisting that being skilled at addressing bias, conscious or unconscious, is a requirement, not an optional extra. We cannot excel without it.

Discover how you can utilise unconscious bias training to improve your organisation and work inclusively; contact our experts or find out more about unconscious bias training.

Further reading

Best books on diversity and inclusion
What are micro behaviours?
Racism at work – Inclusive leaders must focus and act
Inclusive leadership during the pandemic
Equality, diversity and inclusion – how to get started

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