Changing Bias: The 3-Legged Stool
The middle-aged, white vice-president of human resources, tearfully finding out in an anti-bias workshop that she has “never” felt part of an out group; the middle-aged, white senior partner who had neglected to mute himself in the anti-bias webinar, sighing heavily: “Good lord, this is tedious!” These real-life examples give us as organizational development professionals and anti- harassment trainers pause for serious concern. Could it be that others in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) workshops feel similarly upset or angry?
As adult educators, we know that training does not necessarily translate to doing. We can’t expect someone who attends a DEI webinar will suddenly become respectful and inclusive. At best, participants might come away with a bit of self-awareness – glimpses of their own biases and a strategy or two to keep these in check. However, unintended and harmful backlash occurs when these DEI session are conducted with little attention to the psychology of unconscious bias in the people we most want to reach.
Unconscious biases are psychological defenses. They exist for humans to effectively organize massive amounts of data, to act quickly, to understand the world around us, and to protect ourselves. Nudging people toward inclusivity means getting them to identify and even challenge their unconscious biases, an inherently risky proposal for the participant. Judgment by the presenter, no matter how subtle, provokes defensiveness. Attacking their armour is a poor way to get someone to remove it. Could it be that something about the delivery of the DEI session triggered the vice-president to be upset or the senior partner to deem the session “tedious?” Could we structure the DEI conversation to shift them from upset to curious, from bored to intrigued?
Genuinely changing disrespectful behaviours driven by unconscious biases is a three-legged stool. If we want participants to understand and better manage their prejudicial biases, three critical components are required:
- Insight: Raising awareness of why it may be in their own best interest to confront their biases is a critical first step. People need to understand how this awareness will improve their strategic problem-solving and effective decision-making. Pushing themes of marginalization and privilege, as real as they are, promotes defensiveness. People can’t be open to insight and closed in defensiveness at the same time;
- Motivation: If we can help participants understand their biases and change the dysfunctional behaviours resulting from these, the motivation leg of the stool grows almost on its own. Other times, people are motivated to make positive changes by hearing other people’s experiences which touch them on an emotional level. They may explore why they’ve developed counter-productive biases and instead build empathy for others. Participants need to explore what we put in front of them and to ask questions of themselves and others. In the name of “safe spaces” our sessions often shut down questions that might, in the presenter’s view, offend others, and thus limit precious opportunities for participants to feel motivated to change;
- Skills: Once someone understands and wants to change their approach, the only step missing is what to do instead? A common unrealistic suggestion for participants to return to their workplaces and “call out and haul out” others who say prejudicial comments sounds righteous, but may lead to more workplace shaming – the very thing we want to eliminate through our DEI workshops. Unreasonable approaches like this lead participants to lose confidence in the presenter, and they leave without any practical tools to employ.
Our collective failure to structure our DEI workshops to promote insight, motivation and skills may indeed have the opposite effect: They may drive bias underground, block motivation and empathy, and feed resistance. Is it any wonder that more than a few of our DEI workshop participants find them tedious?
In the next blog, we’ll examine three common mistakes we presenters make that interfere with the three-legged stool of positive change, and how we can avoid them.