Unconscious bias training is a huge growing market.

It probably doesn’t work.

There is evidence that it makes matters worse.

The Prejudice Lab at the University of Wisconsin has developed over 30 years a new approach: from seeking to eliminate unconscious bias to changing conscious behaviour.

Learning from watching poor results even as the unconscious bias training machinery became mandatory over more and more businesses, this team studied what really seems to happen.

An old adage: ‘what you concentrate on grows’. This may well be happening in unconscious bias training.

It looks as if the following dynamics may be in play.

Itemising and describing ‘minorities’ may strengthen the very sense of ‘otherness’ that underpins so much prejudice.

Strong bias – unconscious or not – often accompanies certain other characteristics. The key one? Not appreciating being told what to think or do. So training that feels the slightest bit like ‘lecturing’ may entrench bias.

Itemising and describing other peoples’ biases may, oddly, increase one’s own. It acts as a sort of permission, or normalisation.

As seen with some virtue signalling activities such as conspicuous charity donation, the sense of ‘I’ve done that now’ can reduce subsequent real positive action.

The current advice is simple and action orientated.

Move from the unconscious to the conscious. Model visible behaviours and actions.

Acknowledge – rather than deny or smooth over – differences.

Create, encourage, build and reward the behaviour you want to see. Create a culture that everyone wants to be, and can be, part of rather than talking about it. Do whatever it takes to make everyone feel part of the same team.

Karl Lagerfeld’s death was announced this week.

One of this intelligent man’s mantras was ‘embrace the present and invent the future’.

What a great brief for re-thinking unconscious bias in our workplaces.


Who wants to hear bad news?

Who wants to work with a bunch of pessimists?

We are surrounded by constant reminders to be upbeat and positive at work.

Yet this may be another example of human hardwired biases that lead us all into comfortable self-delusion writes Ben Yagoda in ‘The Atlantic’ this month.

He takes us through dozens of the unconscious biases (apparently there are over 180) from which we all suffer.

The subject of cognitive biases and faulty heuristics emerged in the ‘70s as social scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, and ‘Nudge’ with Richard Thaler) wrote about their research.

Kahneman introduced us to the notion of System 1 and System 2 thinking, and showed how these built- in judging errors are all neatly nestled in the System 1 part of our brains.

Are these biases unalterable?

Some of them do seem to get us into hot water time and time again.

The optimism bias for example is responsible for us all consistently underestimating both cost and time for just about every project in which we are ever involved.

Kahneman feels that it may be impossible to effect any changes on System1.

He suggests taking conscious counter-acting steps.

Check in with others outside our projects and organisations, for example. (An outsider might see what we are unable to imagine let alone acknowledge.)

Or adopt a procedure or checklist.

There is a simple process (an idea from another cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein) that might just save us.

He recommends a project ‘pre-mortem’.

Ask some of the team to imagine the task in hand going horribly, horribly wrong and write it all down.

It helps the team think ahead more realistically.

‘Pessimist’ is a label that so deeply out of fashion that our optimism bias is surely enjoying maximum influence.

The description ‘carrying out a pre-mortem’ might just save the day. And us.