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Behaviors versus Biases
Change What You Do, Not What You Think
D&I initiatives often provide huge value to organizations, especially those that tie them to mentoring circles, sponsorship, and coaching. Their primary weakness in my experience has been their often-heavy reliance on unconscious bias training, which is a good first step, but inadequate to the heavy lifting of changing behaviors.
These trainings often start with employee surveys designed to reveal patterns of bias. The results are then used to design workshops or retreats where participants are coached to acknowledge and name their own unconscious assumptions and prejudices, often in a group setting.
The idea is that, through the simple process of recognition, people will begin to shift their behavior. It’s basically a cathartic model, similar to those popularized by encounter groups, group therapy, and 12-step programs, in which we are presumed to benefit by telling on ourselves.
Rolling out unconscious bias training programs helps leaders feel they are doing something to help address often painful issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet the results are often disappointing. Over the years, I’ve spoken with too many clients who’ve undertaken costly initiatives, often on a global scale, which evaluations later showed had made little difference. Author and NYU Professor of Journalism Pamela Newkirk has extensively documented the ineffectiveness of much unconscious bias training in her groundbreaking book, Diversity Inc.
When I ask clients why they believe such efforts have failed to move the needle (a common observation), they usually cite small-bore specifics:
The trainers weren’t very good
Participants didn’t dig down deep enough
Leadership didn’t get behind the effort
There were too many introverts in the session
By contrast, my experience, as well as Newkirk’s research, suggests the issue is more fundamental.
For starters, let’s look at the term unconscious bias. What do the words tell us?
• They tell us that we are dealing with our unconscious, those random thoughts and impressions that float through our minds and exist outside our conscious control.
• They tell us that we are focusing on what is negative about ourselves: narrow, reactive, judgmental, limited, self-serving, embarrassing, potentially unkind. That is, our biases.
By definition, then, unconscious bias training asks participants to deal with negative material that lies outside their conscious control. These trainings also-- again by definition-- focus on talk rather than action.
The guiding idea seems to be that having conversations will change us, uncomfortable conversations above all.
But this is rarely true. As humans, we are more likely to change as the result of taking different actions that result in our having different experiences. These experiences then organically begin to shift our thoughts and perceptions.
In other words, changing our actions is more likely to change our thoughts than changing our thoughts is to change our actions.
Which is why we need programs that identify specific and tactical behavioral steps we can take that help us build relationships across boundaries.
Next week I will provide a few.
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