We receive 11 million bits of information every moment, while we can only process 40 bits consciously. The rest? Mostly gets processed unconsciously. That’s how a lot of our beliefs, biases, and stereotypes form. They are mental shortcuts used to make decisions quickly. Even the smallest bias can have large implications. That is why organizations are bringing unconscious biases of their employees into awareness, to build more equitable work cultures. How? Through training.

Some studies state that traditional diversity trainings aren’t that effective in increasing the numbers of underrepresented minorities at work. Though some others believe it is powerful, depending on content, length, audience, and parallel efforts.

We agree with the latter. Trainings can motivate employees to engage with new behaviors that help in undoing biases. Here’s how you can ensure it:

Make the content relevant. If your trainings lean heavily on theoretical frameworks or historical contexts, the content ends up feeling removed from reality. And the training may backfire! Align it with how stereotyping shows up in the workplace – hiring choices, promotion preferences, mentor investment, etc. It will be challenging. But it will be realistic as well. Relating information to our current experiences, helps us remember it better and encourages us to change.

Prevent resistance. The challenge with making training content real – it makes people defensive if they feel like they have engaged in discrimination. They may experience shame or anger. You can prevent this. Acknowledge that we all have biases, because we are human. And then reinforce that most of us consciously work towards becoming better.

This practice was demonstrated well in this study by Prof. Robert Cialdini, who focused on changing stereotypes. He wanted to stop the theft of petrified wood in a state park by posting this sign – ‘Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time’. Surprisingly, it increased theft from 5% to 8%, because it highlighted a common behavior. So, the solution wasn’t to point out the stereotype. It was to communicate that stereotypical behavior is unacceptable. He then put up a sign which read: Please don’t remove petrified wood from the forest. This slashed theft by 1.67%. Why? It made a request from people, while showing how things can be different.

Key lesson: design your diversity trainings to be relevant and indicate the positive action you want people to take. Your employees, then, will be naturally inclined to commit to clear, actionable behaviors. Consistently evaluate their progress, and you will achieve a culture that has sustained impact.

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