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.


‘Future proofing’ is a beloved phrase in off-site meetings and away days and strategy sessions.

It always sounds hilarious, however many times its repeated.

Can any plan or project be somehow protected from whatever (as in whatever) the future might bring?

Thinking that you are immune from the future, and the changes that are coming, is surely even more dangerous than never thinking about the future at all.

Being certain has a rigid quality, doesn’t it?

Trying to imagine, and then imagining some more, feels more flexible; more open.

Its 3 years since David Bowie died, and recently BBC6 tweeted an interview from 1999 (yes, 20 years ago) between Jeremy Paxman and David Bowie.

David Bowie

Our genius hero is imagining the future of the internet. Way out there.

Our leaden (certain) interviewer is still extrapolating from the familiar.

David Bowie is looking ahead and seeing – clues to be followed, mysteries to open up, opportunities and dangers that can’t quite be defined.

BowieNet was way ahead of its time.

Perhaps because the mind behind it was far too brilliant to fall into the pedestrian certainty trap of trying to protect against the future.

The opposite of ‘future proofing’?

At the next away day to plan the future, do as the man said, try anything that channels ‘ but he thinks he’d blow our minds’.


Word of the week is compromise.

Missing behaviour of the week is co-operation.

There are fewer than 60 shopping days to Brexit.

And we are all losing the will to live.

It is beginning to look as if there is a skill shortage amongst those involved in the enterprise.  The skill in question takes years to learn and perfect, can often be confused with ‘being good’, and is crucial to any project involving more than one point of view.


Co-operation is a sort of social competence. It enables us to work with people with whom we don’t identify, who have a different life experience, and different beliefs.  Complex situations are managed with intensive listening ability, curiosity and a creative conversational approach.

The current debates are not debates, are they.

They are limited set piece conversations that repeat positions and shrink possibilities.

The philosopher Bernard Williams observed a British authority style of conversation often associated with those in or close to power.

He called it the ‘fetish of assertion’.

The result of assertion is automatic defence. The possibility space shrinks.

The philosopher’s advice?

Avoid any ‘position possessiveness’. Leave space for ambiguity and exchange.

Is there still time for some co-operation training do we think?


Every so often, a conversation doesn’t go quite the way you planned.  But, thrillingly, can reveal something much more interesting instead.

The interview below from Channel 4 News last week shows exactly this sort of delicious outcome.

And the lessons for all of us in any workplace are undeniably clear.

Say what you mean clearly, factually, and thus pleasantly

When making any plan involving the commitment or interest of people with whom you don’t usually work, do remember to communicate, consult and possibly persuade well in advance

Do be ready, if you haven’t remembered to do the above, to be found out.

channel-4-news-logoChannel 4 News

“I think you would mess it all up for us, the way you have messed it all up for yourselves.”

Heidi Nordby Lunde, president of Norway’s European Movement, is sceptical about calls for the UK to strike a Norway-style deal with the EU.



Travellers in the Dark Web (apparently) love to use the acronym S.W.I.M., meaning “someone who isn’t me’. (Of course, with repetition it will become abundantly clear to everyone which alias is which ‘me’.)

There’s a vein of dissatisfaction with the self, sometimes a shame, bound up in the use of an alias.

Dissatisfaction with the self can be expressed in all sorts of ways, and in the work place some of those ways can become surprisingly aggressive.

Have you ever been part of a team where another group is routinely criticised, vilified or scapegoated?

It seems to be becoming more common.

We seem, all of us, to be echoing the current fervently binary political atmosphere.

As with most of our behaviours, this serves us in some way.

One team with which I work has begun to default to this almost habitual blame quite naturally and easily. There is some stuff facing them that just feels too hard, too difficult.

Much, much more comfortable to concentrate on deficiencies elsewhere than begin the long sticky process of dealing with the mounting complex difficulties closer to home.

‘War is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace’ said Thomas Mann (rather dourly).

But he refers to something we all experience.

Ambiguity, stuff that is difficult to sort and solve, can become too painful and onerous.

We begin to find ways to defend our fragile selves.

We ‘split’ off the parts and topics that are just too much.

Our political representatives (other terms are in use at the moment, I know) are finding it impossible to navigate the tangled, ambiguous, virtually unresolvable problem of Brexit and are instead resorting to binary simplistic stances. Wherever there are difficult problems to solve, teams are tending to revert to ‘us v them’ thinking.

There is only one way through that has any chance of success.

The trick is to begin to ‘bear’ the horribleness of not knowing what to do, to begin to live with the fiendish complexity of the thing.

The answer lies in working with that other part of ourselves, rather than vilifying it.

It is as if S.W.I.M. must become S.W.I.M.B.I.T.S.T

Someone who isn’t me, but is trying to sort it too.


A book published at the beginning of the year about our hidden motives, The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, collects lots of examples of our deep self-rewarding purposes (embedded, pretty unchangeable – sorry) that we deceive ourselves into believing are not there.

We claim to others and to ourselves more ‘acceptable motives’.  This self-deception may begin to explain behavioural inconsistencies that can nag at the happy functioning of teams and groups.

A new club opens. Beautiful furnishings, hip ambience, desirable in every way.
But at reception, the beautiful people fumble, don’t hear, don’t know what is going on, and fail to ‘welcome’ the smart new members.  Everything can be put right logically, the rest of the experience can be top notch, but as sure as a sure thing, those members will no longer feel loyal to the club.

The overt and claimed purpose of joining will be the luxurious convenience, the company, the sense of occasion imparted to any convened meeting or party.  What Mr Hanson and Mr Simler suggest to us about the true purpose of this sort of activity, which would never be acknowledged, is this: the members are going to the club to feel that they are receiving the love and care they deserve – and to be seen to be receiving that love and care.

No reference will be made to this true need.

Yet if that need isn’t met – sayonara.

In many apparently contractual and rational exchanges, the logical and quantifiable evaluation is not only less important than, but positively dependent on, the experience.  Less what was delivered, more how was it delivered.

In BBC Radio 4 series ‘Thought Cages’, Rory Sutherland explores many of the unquestioned ‘right and logical way to do things’ that can constrain us and can be….wrong.

Just as the club might have done better to swap the investment in designer furniture with staff beautifully accomplished in the art of welcome, teams and groups may want to pay more attention to the social and cultural ways of acknowledging status and value of team members.

The pay-off is a loyalty and willingness to participate that an email just doesn’t quite create.


A decade or so ago another hit song started another hit meme.

The phrase ‘Am I more than you bargained for yet?’ might ring a bell.

Like many memes it has finally found its way onto clothing and bags, signalling a gentle decline in its currency.

But perhaps the sentiment, with its original potency, is still relevant.

Many workplace conversations currently revolve around the shortcomings of various recruitment processes.

A sense of disappointment connects these conversations.

Too much conformity, too much ‘ordinary’ amongst the candidates that make it through these dull and risk-averse processes is the conclusion.

The notion of a bargain is at the root of this: pinning down so precisely what is expected, demanded and offered that no surprise or development is possible.

Imagine two scenarios.

Scenario one has the recruiting team recognising a candidate’s qualities and noting that the candidate will ‘fit right in’.

Scenario two has the recruiting team recognising the candidate’s qualities, noting how unusual and special they are, and resolving to use them despite having (as yet) no idea where or how.

Sounds better, doesn’t it?

To get more than you bargained for – in a good way – then Scenario two is the way to go.

Bargains are so predictable.


A team chat the other day about the resurgence of board games became a deeper conversation way beyond winning and losing.

We found ourselves talking about belonging versus …..not.

One team member noted a horrible personal downward spiral at a recent family Monopoly game. Luck was not with him. Throw by throw his position in the game deteriorated.

The teasing (and low level swaggering) from family members became more intense. He said he began to understand what it might be like to belong to a marginalised resistance group. (In his excitement at recalling the feeling, he quoted the world’s number one terrorist organisation.)

And so the discussion about ‘not belonging’ began.

It appears that feeling excluded literally hurts.

Neuroscience suggests that the same part of the brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – is active when physical pain is experienced as when the social/emotional pain of being excluded or ostracised is felt. So the language we all use such as ‘hurt feelings’ is completely accurate.

This matters because social belonging is a fundamental psychological need.

Not only is a series of harmful psychological consequences caused by being rejected, this avalanche of pain is produced regardless of who did the rejecting. An individual or group that you truly despise? Their rejection of you will still sting.

Yet, responses to the process of ostracism are amazing.

More and stronger attempts are made to connect and co-operate to restore what is missing. Skills such as co-operation and reading social information improve. ‘Exclusion’ is not a simple casting choice.

The ramifications are huge, and generally underestimated.

The ability to include everyone begins to feel like one of the most important skills we never talk about.
Time to shake it all about.


It’s been a long time since ‘lunch is for wimps’ was said in earnest.

We are softer now, aren’t we?  The current obsession is sleep.  Are any of us getting enough?

A cursory browse through ‘leadership’ blogs, or tips from high achievers, still reveals

  • Daily ‘gym by 5.00 am’ badges of honour.
  • The sleep message hasn’t really got through yet.
  • The deep association of not needing to rest and being successful seems to be hard to shift.

Or perhaps it’s not about a need to achieve at all.

Perhaps ‘sleep’ becomes less ‘valued’ than a simple sense of ‘at last, this is my time away from them…’

Perhaps there is no other time to escape.

An article in The Atlantic this month suggests we may not be alone.  Animals are experiencing sleep disruption too.

The article describes how over the last few years a nocturnal shift has occurred in many mammals.  From antelope in Tanzania to elephants in Mozambique, mammals that had once roamed primarily in the day are now roaming at night.

The reason? To escape humans.

The pattern can be seen apparently in dozens of species that come into regular contact with humans.

It could be called an avoidance strategy on a vast scale.

Are 21st century human beings trying to do the same?


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.