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The Problem with Unconscious Bias Training

Today, in light of civil unrest over systemic racism and as a response to deepening inequities, we see a number of organizations rushing to tick the box of unconscious bias training.  And if they want to tick a box, well, there we go.

But the fact of the matter is, unconscious or implicit bias training was created not as a solution for systemic bias, prejudice and discrimination. Unconscious bias training – which targets the individual and their ingrained worldviews and unconscious cognitive shortcuts, and not the biased system – was designed in the aftermath of the civil rights and women’s equality movements of the twentieth century as a risk-mitigation and compliance tool. It was not designed by people who experienced and understood discrimination, but by corporate lawyers intent on protecting their organizations from litigation.

Does implicit bias training work? 

Does this common intervention help people interrupt bias in action? In short — no, it doesn’t, and it never has.  There are actually a number of reasons why unconscious bias training doesn’t work, and they are well-documented (this isn’t a matter of a fringe opinion). I dive into some of the specifics below.

It almost never includes what is known to work.

At the end of the day, though, most unconscious bias training workshops do not include any of the many features that research shows us do work when it comes to effecting less biased, more equitable, and lasting behaviour change. Some of these features of effective diversity trainings include:

  • voluntary participation
  • goal-setting and problem-solving
  • a focus on the system as opposed to the individual
  • engaging natural champions
  • and practicing equitable behaviour over time.

Instead, they are, more often than not:

  • mandatory
  • targeted at the individual
  • conceptually disconnected from day-to-day work

“Diversity training doesn’t work.”


Let me illustrate:

Do you know why it’s important to eat a nutritious diet? Do you have a general understanding of why you should move your body?  Do you do those things consistently?

It’s possible that you do, but…

Expecting an employee to be able to overcome their biases after an unconscious bias training session has made them aware of them, is akin to expecting them to eat healthily and be active because you’ve held a health and nutrition seminar.  We all know that bridging that gap is tricky.

If you want your employees and leaders to learn more about discrimination, biases, and stereotyping, run unconscious bias training.  There is evidence that it is a good tool for delivering information.

But, if you want your organization to become more equitable, inclusive and diverse, and be positioned to leverage that diversity, don’t do unconscious bias training.


“Why Unconscious Bias Training Doesn’t Work to Interrupt Bias with Dr Kristen Liesch.”

Human Leaders Webinar With Dr. Kristen Liesch


4 Problems With Unconscious Bias Training

Unconscious bias training and diversity training requires cognitive compliance to achieve results 

Unconscious bias training relies on individuals to become aware of their biases and mitigate them accordingly.  Research shows that de-biasing individuals can be effective only when it includes the following conditions:

  • awareness of the possibility of bias
  • understanding of the direction of the bias
  • immediate feedback when falling prey to the bias
  • a training program with regular feedback, analysis, and coaching

Essentially, a hiring manager (for example) would need to have their own diversity coach to accompany them through their day–every day–to ensure they successfully mitigate their biases. This is not only impractical, it is representative of the significant cost of trying to change minds and behaviour.

Unconscious bias training makes stereotypes more salient 

Studies indicate that, not only does attempting to suppress bias not work, it can make stereotypes seem more significant and result in an increase in biased decision-making.  Scholars call this the rebound effect (Think: “Don’t think about purple elephants”): the more we try to suppress our thoughts, the more apparent they become. If we’re constantly combing through our thoughts to find evidence of a bias, they’ll surface faster and faster. Thoughts of bias or stereotypes become more accessible to us than before we tried to suppress them, and begin to influence our other thoughts and behaviour.

Unconscious bias training can justify biased behaviour 

It turns out that when individuals are asked to assess their thoughts and behaviours for evidence of bias, this introspection “reassures people that they have been correct all along and that their conclusions are based on sound reasoning.”

Unconscious bias training promotes ‘Moral Licensing’

“Moral licensing” happens when a hiring manager who has undergone unconscious bias training (subconsciously) discriminates against a job applicant because they believe (subconsciously) that they are no longer susceptible to their biases.

If your curiosity is piqued, and you want to know more about why unconscious bias training doesn’t work, read on.

Alternative interventions to unconscious bias training

  1. You can invite people in your organization to share (under protection of anonymity) how they have observed or experienced inequity and bias, and empower them to be part of the design of the solution.
  2. You can enlist enthusiastic #changemakers, and equip them with the strategic and critical-thinking skills necessary to then dig into the design of products, services, processes, systems, code, events, communications and reveal opportunities to redesign for greater equity and inclusion, and less bias.
  3. You can run D&I training sessions that exemplify the benefits of inclusion as an incentive to becoming a better leader, coworker and friend, instead of creating a “who’s the least biased” competition — which no one wins and the majority ends up resentful and feeling like the problem.
  4. You should acknowledge that the issues you’re trying to educate on should be solved structurally, not individually. As individuals, we can work together to change these things, but it’s not entirely up to or solvable by one person. This will make equitable change a collaborative and innovative endeavour.
  5. You can incentivise inclusive innovation and encourage teams to bring new perspectives to their decision-making, then celebrate the opportunities they uncover to make their work more equitable.

We’ve explored alternatives further in our blog: What do you do if not unconscious bias training?

You can engage with Tidal Equality to help you create tangible impact in DE&I at your organization, instead of getting stuck in the raising awareness loop.

Did you know?

  • If you run an unconscious bias training program, certain minority groups are less likely to become managers.
  • Unconscious bias training fails because it does not address the systems that inhibit equity, diversity, and inclusion in the first place.

Homogenous workforces are homogenous because the organisational infrastructure supports that homogeneity. 

These are only some of the problems with unconscious bias training. It’s a design fault – bias training wasn’t born out of a desire to make organizations more equal, but rather, to help organizations avoid litigation for being unequal. That design fault not only makes it a waste of money but it also powers more potential damage.  You can’t train the bias out of anyone, but you can equip your people with a practice they can apply to increase equity and inclusion, one question and one decision at a time.

About the author: Dr. Kristen Liesch is co-CEO and co-founder of Tidal Equality. Named a Forbes Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer, Kristen is a strategist and educator with 15 + years of experience designing transformative curricula, implementing equitable process changes, and capacity-building programs to support the design of more equitable organizations in Canada, the U.S., Europe, and New Zealand. 

This article has been kindly repurposed and you can read the original here.