Resistance to Unconscious Bias Training

Lessons in resistance to Unconscious Bias Training

What we can learn from the resistance to Unconscious Bias Training

If you asked any corporate leader if they wanted their workplaces to be respectful, open-minded and psychologically secure for their employees most would say immediately “yes.” There would be a few who couldn’t care less but they are unlikely to admit that publicly. The strong leader knows that providing a positive employee experience leads to strong engagement which impacts creativity, collaboration, reduces churn and increases profitability. The path to behaviours that helps us do this tends to comes under the umbrella of inclusive leadership and unconscious bias training. Given the known positive outcomes of training associated with creating inclusive workplaces, what could go wrong?  But resistance to unconscious bias training is widespread.

What is less clear is why training sessions that help leaders achieve respectful and open-minded profitable corporate cultures get this type of pushback. It’s also less obvious why organisations are afraid to deal with it.

The answers are possibly rooted in the fact that it’s a lot of work. It means introspection and self-reflection, something else that doesn’t come easily to most. But it also involves personal behavioural change which is even more challenging. None of us like to change. Especially ourselves.

Nudge Theory

The resistance to unconscious bias training is so common that it has generated widespread discussion. Appealing to the rational mind to make specific changes on its own is not moving the gender parity needle. The nudge theory has been developed to try and deal with this push back.  Nudges interrupt and outsmart unconscious gender bias and expectations in a practical way by encouraging our unconscious minds away from our short-cut gender stereotype thinking, to considering alternative decisions and perceptions. In everyday language it’s comparable to a way of convincing toddlers to eat their vegetables without telling them what they are doing.  Nudges drive people towards a desired behaviour so gently that they don’t notice they are doing it.

Nudge is a concept in behavioral science, political theory and economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation or enforcement.

Inclusion Nudges

Successfully employed in marketing and other areas where behavioural change is desired, nudges are now being used in many diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially gender balance. Business language and behaviour as well as definitions of corporate success tend to be male coded. When both men and women draw a picture of a leader it is usually a man.  Gender balanced visuals are small “nudges” to balance out employer and product branding material and away from gender stereotyping. They convey a message that an organisation is “friendly” towards women. It’s important to include photos and testimonials of female employees, especially those who work outside stereotypical female functions to send more positive signals. Showcasing the profiles and successes of senior women as brand ambassadors is another nudge that helps overcome the unconscious bias that leadership is a male activity. The use of male only icons, and images on web sites and infographics is commonplace and needs to stop!

 Nudges are used in attracting women to apply for jobs. Research shows that men and women approach career advancement differently. Many women self-de-select from career opportunities when faced with ambiguity and when they don’t meet 80% of the requirements(  (Mohr 2014).)  Changing the language of job adverts and profiles to become more gender neutral is a nudge that leads to an increase in female applicants. If women can see that they can accomplish the tasks set out in the job description, and have an understanding of the support which is available to help them achieve future success, they are also more likely to be attracted to the role. (Gaucher et al 2011) Interestingly men are not put off from responding to gender neutral adverts or even female friendly ones.

Resistance to Unconscious Bias Training  

In all the years I have been involved in corporate training and coaching, one of the few areas where I have observed resistance is in unconscious training. Training involving knowledge transfer tends to be less problematic, but any process that aims at behavioural change is usually more nuanced and the results difficult to measure.  Over time I have come to understand that senior leaders should be able to decode some of the unstated messages  revealed by any push-back. Resistance to unconsicous bias training comes in many forms and ironically this is the very type of behaviour which would also be charaterised as non-inclusive.

  • Non-attendance: The unconvinced unapologetic non-inclusive leader will find any excuse not to attend a session. If their boss makes the training mandatory they will find other passive aggressive ways to make their displeasure felt.
  • Poor time keeping:  late arrival and early departure, perhaps frequent sorties to take “urgent” calls. Not returning from breaks on time.
  • Lack of engagement: significant time spent on their devices, not participating in breakout sessions, even physically isolating themselves in the room.
  • Disruption: talking over, interrupting
  • Distraction: side tracking their neighbours with running negative commentary or other converersations.
  • Either/or thinking: aggressive attack of the validitity of the content, staying in defensive rather than discovery mode, unwilling to discuss constructively.
  • Criticism: of just about everything else. The coffee, food, room tempertature layout or position.

Learning bonuses

Organisers can usually identify the key players who show resistance to unconscious bias training by their non-inclusive, uncivil or even disrespectful behaviour. I advise them to sit where they can have visibility on the room. It can be helpful to observe the proceedings as well as participating.  Leaders can try to understand the reasons behind the negativity and take steps to deal with it. This can be via one- to-one follow-up with an executive coach or diversity and inclusion champion. Senior managers who stand out as toxic participants in one area are highly likely to apply the same beliefs and strategies to their other interactions. I have never been in a situation where the training organiser has been surprised at which participants were not engaging. Some even try to warn in advance which executives will be difficult although I prefer to go in with an open unbiased mind.

There is another added learning bonus. When organisers fail to notice any non-inclusive behaviours in the resistance to unconscious bias training, that also contains a message. Very often these behaviours are so embedded in an organisation’s culture –  poor time keeping, interruption, lack of engagement, that they have become the cultural norm.  Noone notices. It needs outside input to flag it up.

On the plus side over the years I have been doing this type of training the number of unwilling and disruptive particpants per session is reducing.

So instead of being concerned about any resistance to unconscious bias training, we should use it as a basis for learning about the culture of the organisation and take the lessons learned for moving forward.

For more information on unconscious bias training – contact me here.



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