Training Workshops

Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has been a ‘hot topic’ in mainstream news this year, with high profile people talking about it, including Members of Parliament (MPs) and Prince Harry. 

We’re delighted unconscious bias is slowly becoming part of the vernacular, because with increased conversation, comes more awareness. It’s an important topic, which needs to be universally understood because once people start to challenge their own and other people’s unintentional biases, then we take steps towards living in a more just society.

So in what context has unconscious bias appeared in the news? Well, two months ago, a fierce debate broke out when the House of Commons offered unconscious bias training to MPs, only for a number of MPs to refuse to take part. – BBC News.

Simon Woolley, an anti-racism campaigner said he was “appalled” that some MPs had refused the unconscious bias training. He expressed that: “Particularly following the Black Lives Matter Movement, we need all our parliamentarians to make an honest appraisal about our often inbuilt prejudices. It would help them be better politicians.” – The Guardian.

Then again last month, Prince Harry spoke of his lack of awareness of unconscious bias growing up and how seeing his wife Meghan’s experience of unconscious bias had brought the subject into sharper focus for him: “I had no idea it existed. And then, sad as it is to say, it took me many, many years to realise it. Especially then living a day or a week in my wife’s shoes.” – YouTube interview.

Whilst unconscious bias doesn’t make the headlines as often as cases of discrimination (be it racism, sexism etc), that doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly damaging for those individuals who suffer as a result of it. Before we look at the detrimental impacts of UB, let’s first be clear about what it is and why it exists:

Unconscious biases are unintentional stereotypes or people preferences, formed through our social experiences, including family, school, friends, work culture and media exposure. It’s scientifically proven: ‘Unconscious bias has been identified, observed, and validated in brain studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology.’ – Psychology Today.

I think the brain science behind unconscious bias is fascinating! Unconscious bias happens when our brains make very quick judgements and categorises people and situations, without us even realising it. The brain does this because it is exposed to billions of pieces of information a day. It has to take cognitive shortcuts in order to process the sheer amount of data involved and to keep us safe (a super important skill in terms of human survival and evolutionarily-speaking). These shortcuts manifest in the form of assumptions, biases and preferences.

We all have unconscious biases. Yes, you, me and everyone in between! Even if you believe yourself not to be prejudiced or discriminatory, you will still act in biased ways. It’s a by-product of our cognitively limited brains. Behavioural scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal says: “Nobody wants to think that they are biased, but we all are and once we start acknowledging that we can do something about it.” – The Guardian. 

Did you know there are different types of unconscious bias? ‘Affinity Bias’ is when you like someone, because they are similar to you, for example. ‘Conformity Bias’ is falling into line with the thoughts of others, rather than exercising your own independent judgement. You can learn about other types of unconscious bias in this Enact Solutions’ blog we wrote. What I find striking is how pervasive unconscious biases are, seeping into all aspects of our lives, both personally and professionally. 

In the workplace, for example, unconscious bias is often evident in people’s micro-behaviours – ‘the little things that we say and do that show how we regard those around us. Even these very small behaviours can make people feel excluded and can have long-term effects.’ – HR Magazine. For example interrupting or speaking over a colleague in a meeting or leaving someone out of a working group discussion might result from unintentional biases, but they negatively impact on staff inclusivity.

Unconscious bias can also affect decisions on recruitment, allocation of work, staff development and promotions. As ACAS explains: ‘Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.’ Not only is this not fair to individuals, but it’s not good for business.

It’s widely known and scientifically proven through multiple studies that diverse workforces perform better financially. (McKinsey & Company) By having a diverse workforce – employees of all different ages, cultural backgrounds, gender, physical and mental abilities, race, religion, sexual orientation etc, then your organisation will be richer in experience and produce better results.

It’s therefore important for companies to understand the benefits of a diverse workplace, train employees to be aware of unconscious bias and its detrimental impacts, reflect on their own biases, examine recruitment and working practices and take steps to minimise the impact of unconscious bias. As this BBC Worklife article explains: ‘Unconscious bias keeps people and businesses from reaching their full potential and it perpetuates cycles of inequality. The good news is, there are ways to try and correct it.’

Unconscious Bias is our most popular workshop at Enact Solutions (see our Events page for upcoming showcases) and we’re thrilled that companies are committed to learning about and challenging their unconscious biases. 

Our Artistic Director, Daniel McClelland says: “One of the main reasons companies have cited coming to us at Enact Solutions recently for our unconscious bias training is because of how much inequality and prejudice has been highlighted through George Floyd, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and Covid-19. Companies are becoming more aware that they need to do more to raise awareness and challenge damaging behaviours and stereotypes.”

He goes on to say: “Our unconscious mind is considered to be the beating heart of our people preferences and bias, so you could argue that racism, sexism, and simply put prejudice in all its forms, stems from our unconscious brain. In many cases this isn’t our fault, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to change. We teach people to become aware of their unconscious biases and therefore be able to challenge them.”

It’s a statement echoed by Prince Harry: “No-one is blaming anybody . . . You can’t really point the fingers, especially when it comes to unconscious bias. But once you realise . . . then the onus is on you to go out and educate yourself, because ignorance is no longer an excuse.”

Let’s keep learning.

Jemma Houghton

Jemma Houghton is one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy.

Let’s talk about learning through practice

My last blog was on the topic of productive conversations in challenging times and I want to continue on that theme today. Knowing what makes some conversations harder than others, is only the first step. The next step is practice! Getting better at difficult and uncomfortable conversations takes practice. Like any skill, the more you practice it, the easier it will become and the better you will be at it.

Drama-based training is a great way to help people improve their communication skills by trying out new techniques, in a realistic and safe environment. At Enact Solutions we really enjoy teaching people how to flex the way they communicate, based on the person and scenario in front of them. Our training is built on psychological models, scientific information and research, but what’s most special about it is the way we use drama.

We believe learning should be fun and interesting. Think about how children learn – through play and repetition in safe environments. The same goes for adults. Learning should never be boring. It should be stimulating and drama achieves this fantastically.

Consider for a moment why people go to the cinema, the theatre, or watch TV – because it’s entertaining! Drama is fun, educational, thought-provoking and emotive. It lifts us up, and drops us into despair. In short, drama creates moments that last in the memory; that leave you feeling like you have experienced something unique and special. 

Here at Enact, we use the power of drama to spark conversations, evoke emotions and fuel positive change.

How do we do this? Well, we research the types of challenges organisations face, then write realistic characters and scenes to bring these struggles to life. Our talented actors perform these in a range of filmed and live action material. For example, in our Productive Conversations workshop, our actors bring to life the reality of remote working; a new challenge for many of us during the pandemic. 

We show the technical issues, the isolation, the interruptions from family / housemates – essentially all the stresses and strains that working from home, during a pandemic can bring. Delegates see the impact these factors have on conversations – characters getting distracted, frustrated and being short with each other. Combine this with a potentially difficult conversation, such as furlough or missed deadlines and it’s easy to see how quickly communication can break down – especially when it’s not handled well.

When workshop attendees see themselves, their colleagues or their situations reflected in the drama, it evokes strong feelings. We’ve had delegates exclaim, “Oh I do that!” It’s these feelings, which are the perfect foundation for encouraging new ways of thinking and behaving – as explained in this brilliant short video: ‘Put Feelings First’ by Dan Heath, (co-author of ‘The Power of Moments’).

Once participants have been moved by the drama, we then use ‘stop-start’ forum theatre, to give our learners the opportunity to practice how they would handle the challenge differently. The actors replay the scene from the beginning, but this time the delegates are in control. Working with our expert facilitators, they can stop the drama when they feel there is an opportunity to change events for the better. Delegates can instruct a character to empathise with their colleague, ask an open question, or actively listen for example. They then get to watch how their changes impact the scene, for the better.

What’s the benefit of this? Well, as with any skill, practice is key! Similar to the way an athlete practices their moves to commit them to ‘muscle memory’, people must do the same for ’emotional memory’. By practising potentially challenging conversations (through ‘stop-start’ theatre), we give our learners the opportunity to develop their emotional memory, so they have the confidence and experience to handle them when they occur in real-life.

As well as emotional memory, we must also take the time to develop our listening skills, as active listening is key to holding good conversations. Julian Treasure is an incredible person to listen(!) to on the subject of listening. He’s given some great TED Talks on the topic, specifically how as a society, ‘we are losing our listening’, with how loud the world is becoming.

Through Enact’s drama, our learners recognise how distracting the everyday, undercurrent of working life sounds can be; the incessant email notifications, video and telephone calls, and interruptions from family. They see firsthand the negative impact this ‘noise’ has on good-quality, important conversations with their colleagues. We teach them how to listen more effectively, how to pay active attention to their colleagues. It’s about listening with your ears, head and heart. We all need to be heard at the end of the day…

…So let’s start listening.

Jemma Houghton

This is the second in a series of blog posts about Productive Conversations written by Jemma Houghton, one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy. You can read Jemma’s first blog on this topic,  Let’s talk about work and the new normal, on our site. You can also check out all our products and have a look at our events page.