Posted: 13 Apr. 2022 10 min. read

Consciously Unconscious

Diversity & Inclusion Beyond Unconscious Bias Training

Amidst the chaos of 2020-2021, Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in the workplace is more important than ever. An increase in remote working has made it apparent that belonging and social connection is no longer a desire, but a need. Events across the world highlight the challenges that remain, with civil unrest in the USA, the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, and violation of women’s rights by the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan all demonstrating how real an issue this remains. The business case for D&I is strong, with research showing that inclusive organisations are more innovative, agile, better performing, and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets. In times of uncertainty, organisations need to ensure that D&I isn’t pushed to the side-lines, but rather prioritised as a key enabler of business strategy.

What is Unconscious Bias Training?

The concept of unconscious bias originates in behavioural science. The pioneering work of psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and behavioural economists like Richard Thaler demonstrates that most human decision-making occurs automatically without conscious thought. We rely on cognitive shortcuts – rules of thumb – that, while efficient and usually effective, can lead to bias. Biases are evident across all areas of human thinking and behaviour, from our tendency to follow social norms, to our innate preference for the status quo. The disturbing conclusion is that humans aren’t nearly as rational and logical as we think.

Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) is the most common approach to addressing D&I in the workplace. UBT seeks to reduce workplace inequalities by raising awareness of personal biases and teaching methods to alleviate them. The market for UBT is huge, with 8 billion dollars per year spent on diversity training in the USA alone.

So, does UBT work?

The short and rather uncomfortable answer is “no”.

While training can be useful in raising awareness of the issue of D&I, there’s significant evidence that unconscious bias training can lead to worse diversity outcomes.

Behavioural science makes clear that simply raising awareness of biases is highly unlikely to drive meaningful behavioural change. The intention-action gap many of us experience daily (think New Year’s resolutions) isn’t a failure of willpower, but the inescapable result of how our brains work. If most of our decisions occur automatically and unconsciously, making us aware of them isn’t going to change anything. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his lifetime of work uncovering unconscious bias – there’s probably no one more aware of bias than him. When asked whether this makes him any less susceptible to these biases, he just laughs.

Sustained behavioural change relies on properly understanding how human decision-making works and implementing practical interventions to shift behaviours. While our innate tendency towards automatic decisions can lead to bias, there’s also a positive – humans are exceptionally susceptible to environmental factors. Changing the environment, even subtly, can lead to profound changes in behaviour.

Practical, timely interventions

Organisations are becoming aware that we need to think beyond UBT. In Canada, a financial services provider had implemented UBT, but recognised the need for a ‘next-level’ intervention to achieve their goals. Using a leader-led approach, they empowered managers to communicate with their teams, identify biases, and implement disruptive nudges within recruitment and performance assessments. Developing guides to highlight ‘moments’ where these processes required managerial discretion, the organisation identified unconscious biases and developed practical nudges to disrupt the bias in the moment when it was most likely to occur. Turning behavioural science theory into practical and timely business actions, which managers can take with them day-to-day, resulted in a year-on-year increase of perceptions of inclusion from employees, and increases in hiring rates of minority groups.

Using social norms to nudge inclusive behaviours

Deloitte’s Inclusive Leadership Program (ILP) is designed to assess and develop leaders’ capabilities to drive inclusive behaviour. In Australia, we’ve incorporated nudges into the ILP delivery to several organisations’ leadership teams, where a series of digital nudges were delivered online to small groups of leaders. The nudges promoted daily inclusive behaviours and knowledge sharing through facilitated small group conversation. Inclusive behaviours encouraged by the nudges were selected based on identified areas of inclusive development for each leader group. The nudge forums were effective, acting as a timely reminder and measure of how leaders can ‘walk the talk’ in modelling inclusive behaviours.

Putting Behaviour First

Deloitte UK has applied behavioural insights internally to drive inclusive behaviour within our Consulting practice. The Awakening workstream of our Consulting Leadership Team Move with Impact Black Action Plan is built on three tenets: Educate, Engage, and Ally. Behavioural change methods are central to the development of these initiatives, using our Behaviour First framework to identify behaviours that aren’t inclusive, understand what drives them, and design practical interventions that drive real change, rather than relying on merely raising awareness and hoping for the best.

Putting behaviour first recognises the reality that organisational culture is ultimately the sum of individual behaviours. Small changes to environment can have significant impacts on individual behaviour which have huge impacts when replicated across an organisation.

D&I is fundamentally about changing our behaviours to create and sustain diverse and inclusive cultures. Successfully changing behaviour relies on understanding it. Putting behaviour first allows organisations to realise the outcomes diversity training promises and so often fails to deliver. These times of uncertainty provide an opportunity for leaders to display their commitment to D&I, and by doing so they can change their workplace for the better, driving more successful business outcomes.

Contact us: Fraser MacDonald-Lister, Human Capital Consultant - Deloitte UK.

Supporting references:

Bersin by Deloitte (2017) High Impact Diversity and Inclusion: The New Maturity Model

Kirkland and Bohnet (2017) Focusing on what works for workplace diversity, McKinsey Publishing

Atewologun, D. et al. (2018) Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness, Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 113

Deloitte Insights (2020) The social enterprise at work: Paradox as a path forward, 2020 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends

More about the author

Grace Steedman

Grace Steedman

Consultant, Human Capital, Consulting

Grace is a Consultant in our Human Capital Consulting division in Perth. She is passionate about promoting Diversity & Inclusion in the workplace, advocating the value of inclusive leadership in fostering collaboration and enhancing productivity.