Pop quiz: Training about diversity and inclusion is:
A. An imperative activity for every organization looking to be fully competitive.
B. A total waste of time and money that may actually make workplace relationships worse.
Answer: A and B.
How can both things be true? Because—as with a triple salchow in ice skating—it’s all in the execution. Let’s explore why. Done well, diversity and inclusion training directly acknowledges the seismic shift to an information-based economy. It recognizes that the economy demands creativity and problem-solving skills beyond anything required before. It also responds to the powerful forces shaping the information age: population growth, mass migration, jet-age travel and advancing technology. Leading organizations know that creating an environment in which every employee feels able to fully contribute gives them an edge: Diversity of thought wins.
Done poorly, diversity and inclusion training exists in a bubble. It emphasizes differences over common ground and, in the process, often reinforces inequities. (There’s a reason detractors sometimes call the training “victims and villains.”) It focuses more on physical differences (such as race or gender) and less on thinking styles and cultural differences. It assumes that diversity is a problem to be solved, rather than a strength to be understood and effectively deployed. It seeks to create a new status quo, rather than disrupt the existing one.
To avoid those traps, organizations seeking to effectively train employees about diversity and inclusion can follow these guidelines:
1. Define Diversity in the Broadest Terms
If you focus only on race, gender and age, diversity will always be seen as being about external factors. Among other problems, this approach makes it easy for the majority to conclude that diversity (and therefore inclusion) is not about them. That’s counter to the whole point, which is that inclusion is about everyone because every person’s point of view has value. You can make it about everyone by exploring factors more like thinking styles, personality, and culture.
2. Show Employees What’s in it for Them
Although numerous studies have built a powerful case for the positive impact that diversity and inclusion can have on productivity and profits, most employees aren’t motivated by those benefits. They aremotivated by what benefits them: Improving their own career prospects. In a world of global teams working for multinationals, it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to see that anyone pursuing a 21st century career will be better off if he or she behaves inclusively. Understanding and respecting diversity makes almost every aspect of work life easier, from leading meetings and selling ideas to managing effectively.
3. Make It Emotional
All training is more potent when it connects with both the cognitive and emotional sides of our brains. In this case, remind people what exclusion feels like. We’ve all had that experience at some point: not being chosen for the team, left off the party invitation list, kept on the fringes of the conversation or something similar. It doesn’t feel good, and when reminded of that we can more readily see the corrosive effects of exclusion at work.
Emotions appear to be critical to the training having a lasting impact, too. A quartet of professors from several universities worked on a study of perspective-taking, and reported the results in the Harvard Business Review. They discovered people who assume the point of view of a group to which they don’t belong (such as a different race or sexual orientation), and then write just a few sentences about the challenges facing members of that group, develop greater empathy. That shift was still evident months later.
4. Don’t Skimp on Time
Inclusion is complex, and it isn’t realistic to think you can foster understanding or drive change in a single half-day (or even full-day) course. This one-and-done approach doesn’t allow people time to process their emotions or to debrief on new experiences. Training is more effective broken into smaller pieces and offered over several months. One way to easily extend the reach of diversity and inclusion training is to incorporate it into other training. For example, customer service training will be stronger if it addresses cultural differences. Inclusion doesn’t exist independently of everything else, so why should the training?
5. Address Behavior and Attitudes
One goal for inclusion training is to change behavior. For example, a manager might learn that that there are certain people or groups he or she routinely ignores in meetings and, based on that insight, make it a point to seek different perspectives. But it’s also important to address the attitudes that influence the behavior, which means defining and confronting implicit bias. Trainees must better understand their own thinking before they can better understand that of others.
6. Set Goals
The same group of professors that discovered the lasting impact of perspective-taking also discovered that setting individual goals resulted in lasting change. For example, a trainee might set a goal to challenge stereotypical comments that he or she hears in the workplace. Learning is more effective with regular application and reinforcement.
7. Don’t Rely on Training for Everything
Good diversity and inclusion training is invaluable, but it can’t carry the full burden of organizational change. It must be supported by your leaders and by other initiatives throughout the organization. For example, if an employee tries to share something he or she learned in training and it’s brushed off by the boss, it will undermine both the training and the inclusion initiative. Similarly, it will be hard for anyone to take your inclusion efforts seriously if you teach equity in training—but then continue to have a large gender pay gap.
One final consideration as you develop your diversity and inclusion training is whether to make it mandatory. This question drives some of the most heated debate in the training profession. Those who argue that it should be voluntary say that people will be more open to learning if they seek it out; critics say that only those who already see the value of inclusion will pursue the training. As a trainer, I recognize that adults don’t like to be told what to do and that few of us are excited by material that’s presented as good for us.
Ultimately, though, I believe that whether people are receptive to the training is more about the content and facilitation than a mandate. If you really believe that inclusion is important to your business, then training should be mandatory for everyone. Would you let employees choose whether to participate in safety training? I thought not.