Recently, I had the privilege of running DEI-focused Unconscious Bias training workshops for a number of companies. These invariably raise some interesting questions from the delegates, including:
- We have always been advised to “recruit for fit; bring in people who have our values.” Isn’t what we are learning now a complete turnaround?
- By running this training aren’t we encouraging people to claim they are being excluded?
- Does this mean that I should always recruit the person who is the most different to me or my team?
- Why is it always us who are accused of being discriminatory?
- Aren’t some organisations banning Unconscious Bias training?
- Are you accusing me of being biased? How do you know that?
- If Unconscious Bias is real, then surely I can’t be held responsible for what I feel, say, or do?
Despite almost universal acceptance of the principles of Diversity, Equality, Equity, Inclusion, and Liberation, there is still confusion thinking about what all those mean and how to achieve them, especially in organisations.
Unfortunately, there are those who do not want to understand; those who are fearful of understanding; and those who want to inhibit understanding by others. Those feelings can go right to the top. Indeed, a former President of the USA, apparently with the best of intentions, signed Executive Order 13950 on Sept 20th, 2020 to promote DEI. Unfortunately, it was interpreted by virtually everyone who read it, perhaps rightly, as a ban on Unconscious Bias training. Fortunately, this has now been rescinded by a separate Executive Order signed by the current President.
The reality is that we now know why much discrimination occurs and the effect of Unconscious Biases (or more accurately, Cognitive Preferences). We know and understand the unconscious mental processes that, every second of our lifetimes, are detecting patterns in our experiences. These patterns are being analysed and locked into or updated in our sub-conscious without any judgment, values, or principles being applied. We don’t even know it is happening.
The vast majority of these patterns are essential to being human – they enable us to speak, walk, cook, drive, etc. Have you ever driven hundreds of miles and not consciously taken note of any red traffic lights? Of course, you have. Your multiple prior driving experiences detected the patterns of circumstances and responses and locked them in. Now, when your senses detect a red light and surrounding circumstances, the unconscious mind fires the relevant responses. You don’t have to think. You can use your conscious thought for more interesting things.
Of course, sometimes, we DO consciously recognise the red lights and consciously think. Ever deliberately accelerated in response to an amber light or decided to shoot across a red one? Conscious thought does not always improve our actions! And Cognitive Preferences are not always negative.
This process of unconsciously triggering behaviour is essential to being human. It ensures we quickly pull our hand back when we accidentally put it too near to the stove; it triggers us to move away from danger; it enables us to do our work; it is a survival skill.
These patterns or “Cognitive Preferences,” derived from our cumulative life experiences and locked in the subconscious, get triggered again and again and again with no conscious thought. Unless interrupted, they influence what we say, what we do, and the way that we do it. That is the problem! And it is a problem because we cannot easily or quickly change those unconscious thoughts. To do that, we have to expose ourselves to repetitive contra experiences. Indeed, this is one of the powerful arguments used for affirmative action. This is also why many of our DEI negative experiences continue – those who create them have not experienced sufficient contra-evidence to change the Cognitive Preferences locked in their own sub-consciouses.
But, there is good news!
First, with repeated exposure to contra-experiences such Cognitive Preferences do change. As President Abraham Lincoln said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Second, we can interrupt them. We can learn to detect the impulses we feel, triggered by our unconscious thoughts; we can apply judgement and principles to them; and we can decide to say or do different things. But, that is not going to happen as a result of merely appealing to their better nature or even instructing them. It is not going to happen because of value statements, core values, or corporate policies. Even laws are unlikely to change the behaviours of many.
However, we have long known that education is a powerful driver of change. Indeed, ruthless regimes have long used enforced ignorance to control populations. Regimes around the world still continue to control information flow and restrict knowledge from their populations to retain control. We are fortunate in the developed world to have access to quality education. But most school syllabuses do not address the specifics of Cognitive Preferences and their impact on DEI. So, the working population is largely unaware of how Cognitive Preferences are formed, how they trigger impulses that, in turn, can lead to unacceptable thoughts, words, and deeds.
“Teaching people about Cognitive Preference gives them an excuse for bad behaviour and/or accuses them of being inherently discriminatory.” This is a challenge I hear often. But it is not an excuse. The simple reality is that knowledge is the only thing that equips us to detect our impulses, to analyse them, to identify options, to evaluate those options, to make good selections, and to implement appropriate behaviour. Knowledge is the solution.
And one last thought. We are rightly fighting to address the negative impact of some Cognitive Preferences on our relationships with each other; to address the DEI issues. That is essential and we still have a long way to go.
As our knowledge of Cognitive Preferences and their potential impact increases, we also need to consider what else they impact. The last time you purchased an expensive item, perhaps a car, a house, an expensive gadget, … did you consciously think about the impact that the price sticker had on your decision. The last time you went into a store, did you consciously think about the impact that the sign, “Buy 2, get one free” had on your purchases. The last time you were about to fly, “Did you think about the relative safety of the flight versus that of the journey to the airport.” Probably not. Cognitive Preferences were at play in all those scenarios. Virtually all the decisions we make, conscious or impulsive, are affected by the same mental processes.
Educating our staff in how Unconscious Biases or Cognitive Preferences work, the impact they can have, and how to interrupt them can achieve far more than DEI success – it can enhance the quality of operational decision making.