But really, is Unconscious Bias Training effective or ineffective?

One moment every company wants to roll out unconscious bias training — it’s the sexy new thing that’s going to fix all your D&I problems.

But wait! This Harvard Business Review article says it doesn’t work! And this article is calling Starbucks’s efforts useless! Should I jump on the bandwagon with the naysayers and wait until the next new trendy solution comes along? I mean, it’s safer than trying something and failing. Maybe the next thing is salary transparency and pay equity assessment. Oh wait, that’s already happening. Or maybe it’s a company-wide culture survey. Oh, but there’s also this HBR article that says training does work. Wait, I’m so confused, so does it work or not? I hear almond milk is on its way out and oatmilk is the next it milk.

The debate is receiving even more attention with Starbucks closing 8,000 of its stores in order to conduct a nation-wide racial bias training following an anti-black racial discrimination incident in Philadelphia. Everyone from consumers to activists, CEOs to diversity professionals are paying close attention to events unfolding. Everyone has an opinion about how Starbucks should address the issue and what they should do next. I’ve read some on-point critiques that urge people to look beyond the isolated incident (to address the broader systemic racism and anti-blackness in this country) as well as some disappointing reactions from people who believe Starbucks is overreacting (they’re not). I’ve also been saddened by people who believe there’s just no hope in any of this because nothing will ever work.

There is so much noise.

If you’re a leader working on diversity and inclusion issues at your company, you may have felt overwhelmed more than once in the past two years.

It’s hard to decide who to listen to, what to do, what not to do, what works, what doesn’t work. All the while the spotlight is on you (if you’re lucky, your team) to do the right thing while maximizing the ROI as if that’s something you can calculate easily, and you feel like you could be the next hero or the next scapegoat, all with too little support, too little money, too much pressure, and not enough safe bets.

Well, unfortunately, I’m not here to tell you about these mythical safe bets.

Have you ever wondered why some people are so quick to abandon ship at the first sign of mistake or criticism when it comes to diversity and inclusion? Why is it so easy for leaders to say “well, that didn’t work, so we’re just going to drop the whole thing” when really, it should be another learning opportunity to do better? How many iterations do companies’ products go through? How much feedback do companies gather after each version that gets released to customers? How much grace and “learning opportunities” are afforded in delivering better products?

I’m frustrated that D&I initiatives are so quick to be dropped, and they are not afforded the same level of commitment and grit that companies tout having for their products. It seems like when it comes to D&I, companies are willing to make one bet and we have to get it right on the first try for us to prove any worth in further investment.

Inequities in the workplace and our society at large, are issues that have been perpetuated and nurtured over centuries by systems much larger than your company. People have been working on social justice issues for centuries.

These issues are not going to be “solved” with one big idea — of course one training isn’t enough, duh, people!!! It’s going to take real commitment, criticality, and investment of resources for us to slowly undo the damages we have inherited, created, and recreated.

Leaders truly wanting an inclusive workplace and society need to stay grounded. Be willing to try different things and form opinions grounded in multiple sources of information and values. This is going to be a long journey and we need to try every and all approaches to make a dent. We need to take an iterative approach and be in this for the long haul.

The “unconscious bias training works vs. doesn’t work” debate is too reductive. Rather, I want you to think critically about the debate itself. Ask yourself:

  • What do they mean by “unconscious bias training?” (or any “Diversity Training” for that matter)
  • What types of unconscious bias trainings have been tested?
  • How did they measure success?
  • How did they deliver the training? Was it a lecture? Was it done online? Was it interactive? Was it boring af?
  • Who delivered it? Who tested it? Who received it?
  • Has anyone seen or tested an effective curriculum? What does that look like?
  • Is there anything that could make the training more effective?
  • What additional initiatives should complement or follow unconscious bias training?
  • Is this the right topic for where we are today?
  • How does this training fit into the larger Learning & Development path at our company?
  • What practical applications does the training provide to make the learning actionable?

Categorically ditching all D&I training based on some sweeping generalization is not helpful. Instead of flailing at the first sign of challenge, take a deep breath, and start analyzing your initiatives through a critical lens with a fine tooth comb.

If you feel insecure about an approach, go do your homework or talk to others who may know more than you. Trust me, people who have been doing this work for a long time are not phased easily, because they know they can’t afford to lose their center.

Even as someone who facilitates workshops full time for a living, I’m not here to tell you that they will solve all of your D&I issues. Don’t believe any vendor that tells you otherwise. Some will gladly be your agent for checking your “diversity training” box.

What I can tell you is this: providing a thoughtfully designed space which allows for both compassionate and critical dialogues can help wake people up from their status quo. Conversations that go below the surface can help people identify the things they’ve been too afraid to name. Guiding people to sit in their discomfort and tension while asking questions they’ve been too afraid to ask and say things they’ve been too scared to say is the only way we create real change.

Because we cannot unlearn what we are too afraid to acknowledge. If you’re not uncomfortable while talking about diversity and inclusion, then I assure you, you’re not doing it right.

An effective D&I workshop helps you start your journey from a place of mutual understanding and desire for more dialogue. It helps people understand why this work is so difficult and yet critical, and assists in building the collective desire to do more. A workshop well done should help people realize this is just the beginning, and that there’s a long way ahead beyond awareness and education. A stellar workshop should direct people to make procedural and policy changes that will interrupt injustices at institutional and systemic levels. It should empower people with practical strategies and instill a sense of responsibility to do more than just be “mindful.”

And I sincerely hope that Starbucks gets a great start. A few weeks ago, I had the special opportunity to share some of my learnings and feedback with the team leading the May 29th initiative during their curriculum design phase — they asked thoughtful questions and were battling pretty intense scalability challenges, and they knew this was going to be just the beginning. I believe their heart is in the right place and they’re pouring a lot of resources to prove it. What an opportunity to be a bold leader among so many who are too afraid (ahem, lookin’ at you Waffle House, Allied Universal, +100k others.).

And for spectators watching companies like Starbucks trying to do the right thing, I challenge you all to continue pushing companies to do better while also cheering them on. We don’t need to coddle companies for trying but we can encourage them to keep going. We don’t need to give out cookies for what should be table stakes, but we also don’t need to drag them for not getting everything right the first time. We must be vigilant about calling out BS, and be willing to point people in the right direction if they’re willing to listen and change. Because let’s be real — that’s how all of us learn. Let’s call them in, and model both compassion and criticality.

We can and have to do both.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s any other way to build bridges to change.


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About Michelle Kim

Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and writer passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the Co-founder and CEO of Awaken, a leading provider of experiential and modern Diversity & Inclusive workshops and Modern Manager™ training.