Diversity Training Works But Not Necessarily: What Works, What Doesn’t
Laura Guillén is Associate Professor of People Management and Organization at Esade.
Diversity and inclusion are, without a doubt, two of the hottest topics in 2022 for organizations. A myriad of articles, books and lectures can be found on the internet trumpeting their benefits. Indeed, research has shown that diverse organizations perform better, are more innovative and make better decisions; moreover, their employees are more engaged and committed. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that business schools are updating the leadership models taught in the classroom to adapt to these new times.
These models no longer emphasize that effective leaders must be visionaries or risk takers. Instead, good leaders are portrayed as inclusive and emotionally astute, while empathy and perspective taking are seen as two of the most valuable skills these leaders should possess. At the same time, an alarming fact is that, time and time again, surveys show that it is precisely the skills that executives seem to lack the most. For example, a recent survey found that 76% of employees thought their bosses were toxic and unable to form positive emotional connections with their team members. Managing diversity and inclusion is a difficult skill to master, and the question remains whether or not it can be taught.
Research shows it’s possible, but not necessarily. So what makes diversity programs effective? This is a critically important question for organizations that are strategically spending millions to design more diverse and inclusive workplaces. There are two approaches to diversity training programs.
The first focuses on awareness and understanding. Participants learn concepts related to diversity such as stereotypes and prejudices. The hope is that raising awareness of these issues can reduce stigma and lead to lasting behavior change. These programs combine lectures with activities such as the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) to uncover participants’ own biases.
Despite the popularity of programs taking this approach, their effectiveness has had mixed results, and they can even backfire.. This is because they may not serve to overcome know-how gap. Executives can learn that they need to be accessible to their team members, while locking themselves in their desks to complete the job entirely on their own. Knowing something is one thing; acting on it is something quite different. It can even create frustration in participants who recognize their biases but do not know how to reduce them. Precisely because prejudices arise automatically and unconsciously, it is difficult to control them deliberately. Realizing that we are not able to control our biased attitudes and decisions can increase anxiety and stress levels. From a psychological point of view, these programs are flawed because they operate entirely on a cognitive rather than an emotional level.. Think of a personal development that you feel particularly proud of, such as having been more patient lately or learning to control your bad temper with co-workers. It is unlikely that this change was prompted by anyone narrative you needed to change. Instead, personal transformation requires development readiness which occurs when we are emotionally engaged and feel the need to change. In addition, these programs do not provide space for social learning to arrive. This happens when participants have the opportunity to experiment with new behaviors and skills, receive feedback on their current behaviors, and learn new tips and tricks from others to manage diversity more effectively.
The second approach is experiential and based on social interaction, on bringing different people together. These program participants thus have the opportunity to meet members of the outgroup (people with whom they normally cannot speak) and get to know them better. These programs are based on group activities or conversations where participants are invited to immerse themselves in diversity. The experience of We-Moving-Stories, a key activity of the Esade Executive MBA Managing Diversity and Inclusion programme, shows that this approach is very powerful from a psychological point of view. It enables participants to detect their own biases in action, to pay close attention to their reactions to something or someone different, and to learn from the social dynamics in which they engage.
Participants have the opportunity to engage in deep conversations with people they would not normally interact with in their daily lives and to enter into each other’s worlds, triggering their learning and strengthening their abilities to empathize and perspective taking. This approach is consistent with the experiential learning cycle and learning-by-doing principles, where concrete experience is the basis for deep self-reflection that prompts setting goals for personal development and growth.
Interesting way, while the first approach focuses on learning how people from different social groups are perceived to be different from each other, the second focuses on finding similarities. Social interaction is generally key to realizing what we share and have in common with others, and there is strong evidence that pointing out similarities (rather than differences) is crucial for learning to appreciate those who are different. from U.S !
Overall, to design effective diversity training programs in organizations, awareness might not be enough. If we want to promote real change and have lasting impact, intentionally structuring interactions and engagement with diverse people could be a necessary first step in learning how to manage diversity in teams and organizations. Then yes, managing diversity and inclusion is a tough skill to master, but the good news is that it can actually be taught and improved.