We Need to Talk About Unconscious Bias

14 October 2020

In a world that needs authenticity, empathy and tolerance now more than ever, we need to talk about UB. Jennie explores what we need to do together so that talking about bias doesn’t feel like a personal confrontation or an attack on freedom of expression – but instead presents a positive and empowering development opportunity that moves us from Unconscious Bias to Conscious Inclusion…

I tuned into Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2 at the end of last month as they were discussing the topic of Unconscious Bias training – what it entailed, what the merits were and why some feel it’s a threat to free speech or (at best) a waste of time and money.  The topic came up in response to Ben Bradley’s blog on Conservative Home and his refusal, along with a large number of other MPs, to take part in Unconscious Bias training at Westminster.

Somewhat frustratingly, there simply wasn’t the airtime to do the discussion justice.  A couple of callers went some way to describe what UB is, how it might manifest and where it can help or hinder us in our lives at home and at work.  The discussion also raised concerns about the ‘collective guilt prescribed to white people’, and those who are afraid to voice their concerns for fear of being branded racist.  One caller also suggested that ‘in the midst of a pandemic, couldn’t this public money be better spent? And is this really the appropriate time to give it focus?’…

This is precisely the time for us to reflect on our behaviours and the biases we all have and (as it requires investment to do it in a way that’s meaningful) I think this is a great use of public funds (assuming the programme is effective of course, more on that later!)  Specifically, (as we’re talking about MPs) ensuring these individuals understand and can recognise bias, and equipping them to see when biases affect decision making or adversely impact an outcome, is surely vital?  After all, these individuals are democratically elected to represent us.  They are the people making decisions about resourcing and investment in local infrastructure, in our communities, and for our families as we face this pandemic.  How can it be anything but a benefit for them to be more self-aware and conscious of how biases could impact the work they do, those they work with and those they represent?

In my view, developing an awareness of Unconscious Bias is positive and beneficial – but if we’re to have an honest conversation about it, I can’t start by vilifying those that don’t share my view.  We need to remove the judgement here.  There are legitimate concerns from some individuals and some wider organisations about the perceived negative impact of Unconscious Bias programmes.  I don’t share those concerns, but in order to move the dialogue on we have to listen to, and be tolerant of, those differing perspectives – otherwise we risk perpetuating the very issue we are all debating!  And although I feel very strongly that those in public office should be interested in developing their knowledge around what bias is and where it might manifest, I also appreciate the need to have an adult-adult conversation with those that hold a different view.

Maybe it’s the semantics – and perhaps ‘training’ is the word that trips us up.  That word smacks of somehow ‘training’ your brain to think differently or beginning a ‘regimen’ of some kind.  For me (and for Steps), that’s the furthest from what these programmes can be if they’re creatively conceived and delivered well.  We also talk a lot about ‘tackling’ prejudice and the need to be ‘freed from’ our biases – as if they are ‘traps’ or millstones around our necks.  Yes, they can be limiting of course, but they can also be helpful if they’re consciously understood, used, and adapted.   Some of the language we use around Unconscious Bias is loaded – it risks sounding judgemental in itself – and I think we need to flip the script if we are going to start to change the ‘anti-diversity’ rhetoric that is starting to emerge.

A well-crafted Unconscious Bias programme is not an attack on free speech or an indoctrination programme that tells participants what to think, say and do.  It’s not about criticism, apportioning blame or limiting expression.  If that were the case, I would be joining Ben Bradley in writing these programmes off!  But he’s making an assumption, having never attended a session.  In his view, raising awareness of Unconscious Bias is, in itself, a form of ‘metropolitan “groupthink” which is intolerant to any diversity of views’ – and I feel it’s quite the opposite.   It’s well documented that neuro-diversity and divergence of thought brings business benefits, so I don’t think it would be in anyone’s interest to try to create homogenous thinking or automated responses.  Let’s face it – we need authenticity now more than ever from our leaders!

Crucially, success and sustainable change lies in the design and delivery of Unconscious Bias programmes and here’s where ‘chalk and talk’ just doesn’t cut it.  Sure, you can gain a better theoretical understanding of bias, the psychology, the science, and whilst that’s extremely helpful for context of course, the missed opportunity is that there is very little application of that knowledge to reality.  You can keep that knowledge at ‘arm’s length’ if you like – knowing that as humans, our biases are hard-wired.

What’s vital is to bridge the gap between theory and practice.   What does bias look like in our day to day behaviours, decisions, relationships?  How an established neural pathway leads to bias in decision making is a perfectly legitimate question, but bring that bias to life in a workplace situation with individuals, emotions, intent and impact and you understand it on a very different level.   That’s why Unconscious Bias programmes have to be experiential.  They have to be personal.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ or a universal understanding of bias in practice – despite the science and the theory being the same.  We can universally apply a knowledge of biological and neurological human processes – but what we cannot do is present a view that our biases themselves are universal.

That’s why drama is so uniquely powerful for bringing about a greater awareness and understanding of Unconscious Bias. It’s visceral, it connects people emotionally with how bias plays out in practical terms, and how that experience makes them feel.  They can talk openly and safely, without judgement, knowing that their interpretation or response could be shared by others or remain exclusive to them.  This valuing and acknowledging of difference is profound, and on our programmes is often a game-changer for those that hold more of an ‘arm’s length’ view of Unconscious Bias (that it’s something biological to be aware of – but ‘not something I do’.)  It also helps build trust and a shared understanding within teams – a vital component for new thinking and/or behaviour change to occur and to sustain.

Whatever your view, it’s clear that bias and diversity headlines will continue to feature in the global press, statements about bias and diversity will be increasingly politicised and, because of this, the conversation about bias awareness will likely continue to divide opinion. Only through honest conversations with all views heard and valued can we start to change the narrative – so that talking about bias doesn’t feel like a personal confrontation or an attack on freedom of expression – but instead presents a positive and empowering development opportunity that moves us from Unconscious Bias to Conscious Inclusion.

If I’m allowed one small moment on my virtual soap box’, I don’t see that there’s anything to lose by raising awareness of bias – but there’s genuinely such a lot we can gain for ourselves and each other, in a world that needs authenticity, empathy and tolerance now more than ever.

Jennie also posted this article on LinkedIn – the original can be found here.

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