How Are Trust, Empathy & Bias Linked?

Concern and attention to bias in the workplace has increased exponentially as workers of all generations have raised their voices about inequality of treatment based on gender, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability and more. Businesses in most industries as well as non-profits conduct diversity and #UnconsciousBiasTraining with mostly mixed results and little cause for celebration.   

So a team of professors, staff and a graduate student from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School created a training program and “rigorously tested its effects” to see if the training would work as intended to change attitudes and lead to more inclusive behavior. 

The Training Experiment 

They created three versions of one-hour online training: 1) addressing gender bias; 2) focusing on biases of all sorts, including age; and 3) a control focused on the importance of developing psychological safety in teams. The course material especially focused on preventing defensiveness. The test sample - 38.5% female, 61.5% male – with 3,000 people responding from a large global organization, included about 25% managers.  

Employer attitudes toward women and racial minorities (not other aspects of diversity) were measured immediately after they completed the training. Also measured was trainees’ behavior over the following 20 weeks, looking at whom they: chose to mentor; recognized for excellence; and volunteered to help. 

The Findings 

  • There was a positive effect from the bias-focused trainings on the attitudes of employees who the study authors believe were least supportive of women prior to the training. They became more likely to acknowledge discrimination against women and their own racial and gender biases, and to support policies for helping women.

  • The bad news is there was very little evidence that the behavior of male or white employees overall was affected by the trainings.

  • Good news on the “intersectionality” of biases: U.S. employees who attended the trainings that were solely on gender bias and stereotyping were more willing than the control groups to acknowledge their own racial biases, mentor racial minorities, and recognize the excellent work of racial minority peers. That suggests a spillover effect from one marginalized group to another.

I wonder if there could be spillover from age bias training if it was conducted.

  • The surprise good news of the study was that after attending the bias training US women employed in junior positions took the initiative to seek out mentorship from senior colleagues, suggesting they became more proactive in pursuing their own advancement. 

In my podcast appearances, most recently with Jess Dewell on the Voice of Bold Business Radio, and other interviews and discussions, I’ve been asked, ”Doesn’t it just come down to bias?” An interesting question. My response is “yes” and “no.” Yes, I would say ageism, directed at both older and younger people at work, is often bias. But also, significant causes may be fears, such as fear that someone older or younger than you may take your place with their different skills and experience. Or imposter syndrome, which is a self-bias, and a fear of being discovered as not smart (or whatever) enough. On the not necessarily bias side, I pointed out: general risk-averse personalities, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, being too lazy to question the hype and stereotypes. Lack of exercising curiosity and not taking time for reflection also plays into it. I also believe many people have lost the art of conversation in which they might take the opportunity to get to know what individuals of (age or any) difference are really like.  

A follow-up question is “How do we train our brains to look for bias?” Bias training is useful as long as it doesn’t make people feel guilty; then they will turn off and it’s worse than no training.  Meaningful discussions and training have to happen in a non-threatening environment. People need a sense of psychological safety to speak their truths and listen. Discussions often need to be facilitated. Intergroup dialogue with trained facilitators over a period of time – not just one session – can be very effective. And people have to be willing to learn new methods and ways of thinking. It won’t happen if they are not truly open and willing to learn to trust. 

This brings me back to the Wharton study. The authors speculated on one of the few positive outcomes from their diversity training – that the junior women who attended the training took the initiative to seek out mentorship from more senior female and male colleagues. Possibly the institutional inclusivity promotion effort “led those women to trust that it was safe to advocate for themselves.” 

We will not see inclusivity in or outside of the workplace until greater trust is established among people of (any and all) differences. 

Studies in the last five years have found that while the instance of older workers reporting to Millennial bosses keeps increasing, the younger managers often have difficulty gaining their older colleagues’ trust. Is it bias or a lack of familiarity with the person of a different generation, their expectations, preferences, style of working and what influenced them to think and behave as they do? Solutions to this problem have to come from both parties. They need to convey their interest and continuing relevance – what they bring to the table in skills and experience, whether older or younger - and define common goals. 

A study by the Pew Research Center (released 7/22/19) indicates we should not hold our breath on gaining or regaining trust unless we, as individuals, make a concerted effort to reach out and initiate it. I am a congenital optimist, but the results of the Pew study are disturbing. 

The Latest Trust Study 

Trust and its companion skill, empathy, are two of the 10 essentials for success I explore through the lenses of five generations in my book, “You Can’t Google It!”, outlining specific action steps.  

Next time I will discuss the Pew study findings, my thoughts on it, and more on how bias, trust and empathy are linked. 

My ASK: If you know of any organizations conducting age bias training, coaching surveys or studies, please let me know where. 

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot 2019.