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.


It’s so easy to give the ‘take some time out to think’ advice: much harder to act on it.  Like daily exercise and early nights we all know that we would feel better.

But who can just drop the ‘priority got to do’ list? Everyone’s daily reality now is of demands and pressures that require constant vigilance to keep chaos from the door. (Or if it’s already there, from breaking through).  Inevitably, it can feel hard to justify some hours out of the office to think. To think about change, say, or leadership, or simply to share experiences.

Thus most training days, almost whatever the subject, involve detailed agenda,
minute by minute day plans, and usually plenty of reading material for extra heft. While completely understandable, this can all become a justification process of
such effectiveness that real, long lasting benefits can be squeezed out.

Because ironically, the biggest ‘ahas’ are unplanned and unexpected: occurring
when space opens up to let them happen.  Again and again I hear reported that it was the unplanned discussion or encounter that produced a new thought or perspective.

If you are able to ‘take some time out to think’, and find yourself reviewing any
power-packed training on offer, check for some space and time that isn’t
completely accounted for.

Oscar Wilde’s take on this was that ‘To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly
modern intellect’.

Go a step further: demand the unexpected.


Why are businesses so interested in learning from the world of sport?

Hoping that magic dust will rub off from superheroes who have won medals and broken records is completely understandable. And rather charming.

But the go-to habit of inviting sportstars to share leadership, motivation, how-to-win experiences and wisdom is beginning to feel a tad old fashioned.

“Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day to day living that wears you out”

is where my questioning starts.

A sports star trains for a particular event: a team leader is team leader all the time.  A sports star is aiming to win against a know-able group of competitors; a team leader is aiming to deliver/ invest/ create / research / improve …and thus ‘win’ within a constantly changing context.

A sports star is rewarded and prepares for the next event: a team leader is, yes, again, a team leader all the time. Sometimes a team leader catalyses success and actively deflects credit to others.

A sports star must understand the competition in order to overreach them: a team leader, in this ever-changing world, may need to form unlikely collaborations and alliances. Yesterday’s competitor may be tomorrow’s ally. Teams change and morph constantly.

A sports star invests in optimizing a set of skills: a team leader is invested in unlocking hitherto unknown skills in others. Potential unleashed can surprise everyone and change everything.

Sports stars become stars by being amazing, talented and dedicated: team leaders too. As do many inspiring people living varied lives.

If business keeps looking just to sport for role models and insight, then other potentially inspiring models of leadership will remain unknown.

And all because we are star struck, because we don’t look closely enough at a little myth that still has power over us: thinking of business as ‘play up and play the game’.