Changing Behaviors, Not Just Attitudes

Events of 2020 accelerated companies’ interest in all things around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I).  This has brought out a lot of “experts” in the field and a multitude of unconscious bias training (UBT) programs to address the problem of discrimination in the workplace.

The idea behind UBT is that a change in an attitude (bias) will lead to a change in how people act (prejudice) so that they will show behaviors that promote DE&I. This is very different from typical development programs which focus directly on behaviors. And, while it is fair to say that our understanding of the effectiveness DE&I programs is at an early stage, there has been research done which is fairly sobering on the topic.

This report outlines what seems to be effective in the DE&I training space.  The relevant key findings are (emphasis added):

  • UBT is effective for awareness raising by using an Implicit Association Test (IAT) (followed by a debrief) or more advanced training designs such as interactive workshops.
  • UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it.
  • UBT interventions are not generally designed to reduce explicit bias and those that do aim to do so have yielded mixed results.
  • Using an IAT and educating participants on unconscious bias theory is likely to increase awareness of and reduce implicit bias.
  • The evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behavior is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behavior change.

I emphasized that last bullet because I believe that is where we need to focus.  If behaviors do not change then we cannot achieve DE&I.  Organizations should not spend money on DE&I programs (UBTs or otherwise) that do not show these changes.

The report hedges a bit in noting that valid measures of behavior were not used in the research studies.  Rightly, this puts the onus on organizations to define the actions that need to be changed.  For instance, use of appropriate language, giving others the opportunity to share ideas, etc.  Note that these are different from organizational goals (e.g., representation in management positions), which should be measured, which are outcomes of D&EI behaviors.

Once the behaviors are defined, then a method for evaluating them needs to be implemented.  A 360 feedback instrument is likely to be effective for interpersonal behaviors.  When well designed, these encourage raters to evaluate what they observe in others rather than giving opinions.  This provides the opportunity for those being rated to be given meaningful feedback and gives those responsible for designing UBT programs information on areas that still need more work.  How to provide this feedback is a topic for another post.

There can be objective individual measures as well.  For instance, the diversity of a person’s LinkedIn connections or hires/promotions that she/he/they was involved with.

We should always remember that any organizational change begins with people acting differently.  The important starting point in a successful DE&I initiative is understanding what are the behaviors that you want to impact.  That will be more effective in designing meaningful programs than hoping that insights from an IAT will be sufficient.

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