We really (really) need to talk about bias

March 2, 2021by admin0
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Are we discussing sufficiently about the personal biases we bring to the workplace? The limited reaction to the resignation of KPMG chairman 2 weeks ago seems to suggest we actually don’t.
Bias is non-useful knowledge that we carry in the workplace. Learning how to break the link is a crucial first step to allow for new behaviours to occur.

I was expecting hundreds of posts in the past 15 days covering the leaked statement by KPMG UK Chairman about the ineffectiveness of unconscious bias training.
Instead, I was welcomed by a surprising silence.

The #unconsciousbias and # bias Google Searches give little fresh results, and so did searchers on LinkedIn and Twitter posts.

According to the HBR article in 2019 “(..) research also shows that bias prevention programs rarely deliver. And some companies don’t invest in them at all.” Article from Mail Online talks about how unconscious bias might make things worse; article form the Telegraphs reports that also the English Civil Service has stopped receiving trainings on this topic.

Plenty of debates, training and programmes are offered on inclusion, diversity equality and equity. Actions and strategies to support a diverse workforce, recruitment practices and promotion are published. As a modern workforce we seem to have clear the strategy that by simply adding perspective and diversity we can create innovation.

However, do we really understand perspective without the concept of bias? Are we focusing our efforts on how to be inclusive leaving out the why we seek exclusion?

Bias is a powerful decision-making tool that our evolution has fine-tuned to provide immediate and tangible results. Bias is knowledge – knowledge that we have acquired as we matured from childhood into adults. It is the knowledge we have attained without reflecting on its accuracy by implicitly trusting the source. Bias is what our parents believed the world to be and this includes social and economic class, religion choices, cultural interests.

Our cultural zeitgeist informs our bias.

Unconscious bias is cumulative unrevised knowledge – knowledge for which we no longer trace back the ultimate source.

The fact that they are unaware or disinterred on how we have come to a decision is framed as unconscious – even if the real term that best describes it is covert or unabridged.

Unconscious Bias Trainings are revisions of choices and actions in the workplace – like CV selection – that aim to bring to attention how some of our choices stem can from our biased. The trainings aim to show how this bias replaces our free choices – age stereotyping for specific job roles.

To provide employees with learning opportunities on how past knowledge influences decisions at work and, subsequentially, with information on how to move past them is an important step to accomplish.

Why then Mr. Michaels and other Senior managers believe that such learning opportunities are ineffective?

It can be argued that a shared learning experience that exposes prejudice is not the most favourable way as we would naturally feel embarrassed. By not engaging with the discovery openly the opportunity for learning (and change) is missed.

Some trainings bring forward prejudices that impact our choices outside the work place. Values and morality impact the private self – only practical workplace examples should be given of when bias happen.

A key challenge for organisations is to support employees and managers to more forward and make decisions in “unbiased” as well as effective and timely manners. It is not enough to recognise once preference when delegating which might be based on a pre-conceived notion of skills and aptitudes. It is also necessary to know what else can be used to make choices and take action. If bias is an implicit error of judgement and my decisions lack equilibrium – we then need to learn what equilibrium is.

From what I read I understand that Bill Michael’s resignations from KPMG is linked to a series of comments made in the course of the same company meeting, not only to those referred to Unconscious Bias Training.

FT reports his words to be “There is no such thing as unconscious bias (…) because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved. So unless you care, you actually won’t change (…)

And there is some truth in that caring to change is a key component of all form of learning and the understanding that bias is personal and that common workplace do not strive if the workforce is extremely homogenous and sharing the same values.

The key of unconscious training is to bring to the individual attention the link there is between one’s own values and bias in the workplace.

Once the unplanned link and broken further earning on empathy, decision-making will sustain the will to change and stamp out the fear that naturally comes when realising that not all the knowledge we have acquired is actually useful.

To progress your self – education



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