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Several years ago, while working for a large pharmaceutical company, I experienced the ‘sheep dip’ that was unconscious bias training. This well-meant, but ultimately forgettable, training was like being asked to change banks for a better deal: logically it makes sense but it just seems too hard.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to a talented consultant who had just finished running a week-long leadership event for a top 50 blue-chip organisation. He mentioned that every session was great, except the Diversity and Inclusion/Unconscious Bias session, which received average feedback at best. He remarked that similar events have shown him that it was not unusual for this session to rate the lowest.

This got me thinking: what is it about diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias training that is not hitting the mark? It seems to be treated like a check-box activity – a bit like compliance training – rather than one to be embraced for its potential to give organisations a strategic advantage over their competition.

I decided to consult with Fernando Lanzer: something of an unconscious bias guru who has done some great things in this area. I started by asking him about how it affects us on a daily basis.

Leveraging culture change to counter unconscious bias in workplace diversity

Unconscious bias is a matter of values; or rather, unconscious values. Regardless of our conscious values – which might include being politically correct, standing up for diversity and inclusion, defending the environment and speaking truthfully at all times – our unconscious values are the ones that drive our routine behaviour. For example, when we are doing things without reflecting on what we are doing.

In practice, during our day to day routine, our behaviour may often be dictated by habits and values that we are not consciously aware of. We end up doing what we are used to doing without realising that this might be going against the very values that we openly profess.

In terms of diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace, we all have a tendency to hire people who are similar to us. Likewise, we tend to promote and positively assess those who remind us of a better version of ourselves. Despite our best conscious intentions, we unconsciously exclude those people who somehow make us feel less comfortable, even without realising why.

Why do you think it’s important to address unconscious bias in the workplace?

Unconscious bias is part of human nature. So, on one hand, there’s nothing to be too ashamed of. On the other hand, it does restrict our potential to learn, as we learn more from people who are different from us. It also restricts our organisation’s agility or ‘response-ability’ (the ability to respond to different demands from the business environment).

Besides these rational reasons for seeking to overcome unconscious bias, there is, of course, the moral reason: if we profess to uphold diversity as a value in itself, then we should be consistent and demonstrate through our actions what we are telling our stakeholders. In other words, we should “walk the talk.”

How should we go about ridding ourselves of this unconscious bias?

To get rid of unconscious bias, rather than focus on what we should not be doing, it is much more effective if we focus on the positive: promoting diversity as a value in itself. Seeing it as a strength that we adopt and develop to create more business opportunities and a more enriching workplace. Thinking about what we should not do is usually quite ineffective: people become blocked and freeze. For instance, research has shown that training people on what not to do about safety at work does little to improve work-related accidents. It is much more effective to train people on what they should be doing: wearing protective gear, checking their equipment before beginning a task, holding on to handrails when climbing a staircase.

Similarly, regarding gender issues and sexual harassment in the workplace, research has shown that training men on how not to treat women at work usually leads to resentment and an awkward, uptight work climate. Training on how to treat colleagues with respect yields much better results, and actually improves the atmosphere at work.

This, in practice, means changing the culture of the organisation in such a way that our way of working demonstrates that we really do value Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). An EDI culture will reinforce practising what we preach, and it will have a positive impact on our business performance as well, for the reasons already mentioned. Therefore, we must engage in an organisational culture development program, which typically involves some form of diagnosis in order to define three essential aspects:

  1. describing our present culture, or how we work today;
  2. describing our desired culture, or how we would like to be working in the near future; and
  3. deciding what to keep, what to change, and how to go about keeping and changing.

This is where an experienced consultant might be extremely useful. Such a professional might help you put your issues in perspective, benchmark with other organisations, and guide you through your unique culture development process.

How does this process work?

The process begins with a meeting to define the scope of the programme, involving the principal client and the lead consultant. Depending on the size of the organisation, others may attend and contribute to this initial phase of discussion.

An organisational culture development programme begins with defining how broad and deep the diagnostics will be, who will be involved and what tools will be used. This can be very concise and straightforward, or it can be extended and sophisticated, depending on the client’s preferences and on the consultant’s capabilities. It may involve just the CEO and CHRO in a meeting with the consultant; or it may go as far as involving thousands of staff, providers and clients, using detailed measurement tools to collect hard data.

Following that, the actual change effort is typically organised as a number of projects and initiatives which fall into four categories:

  1. specific projects identified as a priority in the diagnosis;
  2. policy and procedure reviews, to ensure across-the-board consistency with the desired culture (as described in the diagnosis);
  3. a comprehensive communication strategy supporting the desired culture and the change process; and
  4. continuous consulting and coaching of key leaders, champions and change agents, who will drive the process forward, leading by example.

The involvement of the external consultant(s) may go from simply consulting regularly to the principal internal change agent, usually the CEO and/or the CHRO; to actually executing practically all of the projects and initiatives and delivering pre-set outcomes to the organisation. Eventually, some of the initiatives/projects may be outsourced to different providers. Somewhere between these extremes, the client(s) and consultant(s) will decide what combination is best for the organisation’s unique characteristics.

Inherent to this process is defining and deciding how the whole program will be monitored and managed. Eventually, renewal mechanisms should be put in place, so that the organisation may continue the process on a permanent basis without depending on the external consultants who helped the process begin and develop.

Changing organisational culture may seem a bit daunting, but it can be done rather easily; as long as you keep it simple, understand its essence and strive for consistency and persistence. Of course, as is the case for everything in life worth doing, commitment to making it work is the key to success.