How to Not Suck at Unconscious Bias Training

Michelle MiJung Kim
Dec 4, 2017 · 9 min read

So your company decided to jump on the unconscious bias training bandwagon. Maybe this is your company’s first major milestone towards creating a more inclusive and aware workforce. Super exciting!

But wait, did you know doing an unconscious bias training can actually backfire and have a negative effect? Wtf, right?!

Harvard Business Review confirms most Diversity Programs don’t work

You didn’t just spend months convincing your boss to invest in diversity and inclusion education just to have it fall flat on its face and create more problems!

6 Common Reasons Why Unconscious Bias Training Can Backfire

When Unconscious Bias Training is made compulsory without proper messaging or executive sponsorship, some people might feel forced to attend and become resentful. These detractors may end up clouding the entire training with their resentful attitude and push-backs.

Think people with their arms crossed, leaning back, rolling their eyes, asking combative “devil’s advocate” questions from the back of the room. #ugh. This attitude can make learning difficult for everyone, and the negativity can spill onto others in and outside of the training session. Remember, cynicism is contagious.

Unconscious Bias Training Haters

Many workshops fail to educate people on the harmful effects of unconscious biases. This leads to normalization of unconscious biases (“well, I guess we all have biases!”) without provoking any meaningful change in people’s behaviors.

This is the most frustrating part about crappy Unconscious Bias Trainings. Too often, Unconscious Bias (and many other Diversity & Inclusion topics) is treated as some scientific / academic concept that becomes an “interesting thought exercise” that is detached from all the oppressions (e.g., racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.) we experience in our society. In order to create real change, we need to understand Unconscious Bias as a fundamental social justice issue that gives birth to all kinds of -isms in our society, not some standalone concept that is nice-to-know.

Awareness alone is not enough to create culture change. Workshops that focus solely on concepts and theories may be intellectually stimulating but without actionable recommendations, people will go back to their old habits of relying on their unconscious biases to make important decisions.

There’s no cure for boring lectures besides JUST NOT DOING BORING LECTURES. In the age of endless giphys and memes that make us feel whole again, why the hell would people pay attention to stuff that makes them depressed AND bored because someone is reading off text-heavy PowerPoint presentation written in Times New Roman and using way too many animated transitions!? Why?? Say no to boring lectures. We can do better.

Boring Unconscious Bias Training Makes Chewbaccas Want to Smash Things

Too many organizations think conducting a one-time Unconscious Bias training will solve all of their diversity and inclusion issues. While it may give some people the satisfaction of having “checked the box,” there is just no silver bullet for creating lasting behavior and culture change.

Maximize your chance to make an impact.

Unconscious Bias still seems to be the hottest topic right now and the most likely topic to get you started on your organization’s Diversity & Inclusion journey. Its universal and approachable nature (vs. talking about racism or privilege in plain terms, for example) might just be the key to opening many other doors to advance inclusion in the workplace.

There’s tremendous momentum behind rolling out Unconscious Bias Training right now and you can seize this opportunity to further expand your D&I initiatives. Think of well-executed Unconscious Bias Training as the gateway to additional D&I programming and education journey — get the team’s buy-in, build excitement, and grow the desire to want to learn more, beyond Unconscious Bias. On the flipside, a poorly done training can (and will) set your inclusive culture building effort back another year.

Ok, so how do you deliver a kickass Unconscious Bias Training? Here are some best practices to keep in mind, whether you’re looking to build your own curriculum or hire a third party vendor (screen them as if you’re hiring a new Head of Sales).

9 Unconscious Bias Training Best Practices

Having skilled facilitators is the most important when it comes to conducting any type of D&I workshops. Look for people who are knowledgeable about a broad spectrum of D&I topics and can navigate challenging questions swiftly while demonstrating both compassion and criticality.

Great facilitators know how to manage a room filled with people with varying degrees of awareness, desire, and knowledge and can create a safe(r) learning environment to encourage learning that is relevant for everyone.

Your challenger questions are really not that challenging, bruh

Why is learning about unconscious bias important? Why should we focus on unlearning them? What happens if we don’t? Get people on the same page on the “why” so people feel emotionally and personally invested in learning.

These “why” questions are important to ask and answer even before the training session, to align everyone on the reason why you’re having the training in the first place: “Why is this important for our company? Why now?”

Being real about the material, negative impact unconscious biases can have on the workplace culture and society at large will set the stage for the rest of the session.

Don’t discuss unconscious bias as some isolated concept detached from what’s happening in our world today in and outside of the workplace (this is exactly why so many “Diversity & Inclusion” workshops are failing, IMHO). Like, how are you not going to talk about the Cycle of Socialization and Institutionalization of Bias (granted, you don’t have to use these words to explain the concepts — making the learning accessible is also important) when talking about Unconscious Bias? Come on, now!

Remember — at the root of all institutional injustices are unconscious biases that went unchecked.

At Awaken, we always begin our workshops by setting some ground rules. We like to call them “Community Agreements.” These are a set of collective agreements we make to each other in order to make the learning environment feel safe(r), compassionate, and effective for everyone. In a way, we are modeling how we want the culture of the room to be.

Simple reminders about confidentiality, being present, or assuming positive intent can go a long way in designing a compassionate space for conversations that could potentially feel uncomfortable or risky.

From experience, we know real learning happens when people share their stories, ask questions they have been too afraid to ask, or successfully navigate the inevitable tension arising from differing perspectives.

Because we often work with data-driven teams (tech companies, engineers, financial services, etc.) we include compelling data from credible sources in all of our workshops, but we make it a point to quickly pivot once the necessary credibility has been established to do the actual hard work (“heart work”). After all, research has shown data isn’t all that effective at changing people’s hearts and mind!

It is imperative to provide ample time to allow for these types of dialogues to happen. Lecture less. Minimize slides. Ask thought-provoking questions and guide the group through tough conversations. Provide time for self-reflection and group shares. Encourage vulnerability and make learning personal. Create the container in which personal growth can happen through discomfort.

5. Incorporate Interactive Activities and Movement

No one likes to just sit and listen to someone blab for two hours. You don’t need to do “trust falls” (watch the video, it’s hilarious) to make things interesting. Get creative! Incorporate activities that encourage physical movement (but make it accessible to all bodies) and group work. At Awaken, we love activities that incorporate role playing, fish-bowl theaters, post-its, flip charts, group work, and trust falls (just kidding).

Learning should be experiential, not didactic.

Trust fall #fail

Don’t just talk about what unconscious bias is and where it comes from. Being mindful about our own biases is a great first step, but it’s not enough to create lasting, sustainable organizational change.

Sometimes, changing hearts and minds need to be coupled with institutional changes that acknowledge human error is inevitable.

Discuss tactical strategies people can employ right away to overcome them. What are some actionable steps for individuals, teams, and companies can take to overcome and minimize the negative effects of unconscious biases? What are some potential immediate, short-term, and long-term goals we can have to make progress? There’s data and research out there you can base your recommendations on.

Depending on the company culture and how the workshop was messaged prior, you may have some nay-sayers in the room. Be prepared for determined haters who may try to derail the conversation. Understand that if you don’t manage them effectively, not only could it impact the learning experience of others, but it can also further harm people who may already be marginalized in the workplace (e.g., do you know how to respond to questions like “isn’t that reverse racism?”).

Hold detractors accountable — this is where having skilled facilitators will play a critical role. Prioritize those who want to learn, while quickly understanding what the detractors need to stay focused and engaged.

To reduce resentment, work with the exec sponsor(s) to craft the right message prior to the workshop, so people understand the importance of the session and can respect the learning space.

Some of Awaken’s favorite moments, though, have been watching initially cynical and annoyed people completely turn around and leave the workshop feeling inspired and motivated. Now that’s when you know the workshop kicked ass.

Just some good ol’ fashioned humble brag

Don’t just leave the workshop with some vague promise of increasing diversity and inclusion. What are people actually committing to do with the knowledge they just gained? Dedicate time to brainstorm action items as individuals, teams, or as a whole company. Make sure to take notes and follow-up with the group afterwards with reminders or progress updates.

It takes time to learn. Even more time to unlearn harmful behaviors or beliefs. It takes practice and intentional effort to sustain behavior change. In order for the learning to stick, the dialogue must continue. Schedule recurring small discussion groups after the initial workshop to unpack, digest, and reinforce the learning. Consider providing additional training that builds on the knowledge they just gained. We typically recommend addressing microaggressions, debiasing feedback and performance review, inclusive goal setting, or practicing thoughtful allyship as potential follow-up training topics for different groups.

So what now?

Whether you’re looking to develop your own internal curriculum or hire an external vendor, be thoughtful about the goals you’re trying to accomplish with Unconscious Bias training. It’s a great starting point and an awesome conversation starter. Start right — this is a great opportunity to set the right tone for the rest of your inclusion roadmap.

Awaken Workshop in Action

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About Michelle Kim

Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and a coach passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the co-founder of Awaken and owner of Michelle Kim Consulting.

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