Diversity training: How to promote behaviour change

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A new book addresses criticisms of diversity training by showing how to drive improvements through long-term behaviour change.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives have attracted much criticism in recent times, with unconscious bias training receiving particularly harsh views. There is real concern that schemes are becoming tickbox exercises.

A new book from seasoned US diversity experts looks afresh at diversity and inclusion training and what makes some schemes more effective than others.

Dilution of original principles

Diversity Training that Generates Real Change traces the evolution of DEI training from its origins in anti-racism. According to the authors, diversity training was initially a strategic, change-oriented, personal development investment, focused on making business better. Yet over time it has evolved into a quick-hit, low-cost, check-the-box activity that is often ineffective. This has created the perception that “diversity training doesn’t work”.

According to authors James O. Rodgers, a thought leader in diversity management, and Laura L Kangas, a global organisational and management development consultant, the motivation for training is an important factor.

They state: “Look inside many of the organisations declaring themselves diversity-friendly and you will find scant evidence that they desire to practise diversity and inclusion for good commercial or social reasons. The fact that none of the so-called diversity targets involve deep learning or behavioural expectations of executives and employees is a clue that the efforts are intended for gain, not improvement.”

Lack of clarity and investment

Unrealistic expectations and unclear objectives have also fed into negative press about diversity training. Another factor is the under-resourcing of internal diversity practitioners who have “little experience in effective change efforts”.

Rodgers and Kangas state: “At best, many off-the-shelf DEI courses are designed to make people aware and conversant about DEI issues. These materials will educate, but not motivate; inform, but not transform.”

Training is only a part of the transformation process. Rodgers and Kangas believe it must be supported by wider transformation, including embedding of diversity and inclusion into core work practices, with buy-in from the top.

What doesn’t work…

The book points out what doesn’t work. That includes targeting particular groups for training – suggesting that training is there to ‘fix’ them – and  naming and shaming. The authors say training should adhere to the principle that all humans are equally subject to the traps of unconscious discrimination.

Focusing too much on theory rather than practice and having sessions that are trainer- and information-led are also likely to be unsuccessful in achieving any noticeable change.

Other ineffectual approaches include one-off sessions, non-strategic training and omitting  to make the case for diversity and the need to learn about human behaviour.

Making sessions mandatory and focusing on low-cost solutions are generally not the best way to go, either, the authors add.

…and what does

Before starting any training, it’s a good idea to analyse where the organisation is in terms of a diversity. Then comes action.

According to the book, the two factors that have the biggest impact on effective diversity-related training are good facilitators and carefully designed exercises. Moreover, good training requires a safe space, a focus on participant-led experiential learning and robust assessment. It’s also very important to create a sense of a shared experience for all employees, from CEO down.

A crucial element is making sure people understand why they are doing the training. It must be linked to competencies and skills, continuous learning and a commitment to real change.

Following up after diversity training

All of this must be supported by a long-term follow-up plan to drive behaviour change. The authors write: “The purpose is to create an environment that acknowledges, welcomes, and rewards the new behaviours. It takes a deliberate, intentional execution plan to pull that off.

“Humans are creatures of habit. Even after a breakthrough learning event, which alerts us to a better way of being, our tendency is to “lapse back to natural”. The old ways will creep back if we are not deliberate in replacing them with new ways.

“That deliberate process involves experimenting with new behaviours, expecting new outcomes and looking for better results.”

Change, they argue, only happens if everyone can see the benefits of the new way of doing things. That can be reinforced with success stories. “Leaders must understand that the goal is not to change attitudes and beliefs – it is to change behaviour. Race is not the problem. Discriminatory behaviour is.”

The book ends with a call to action, saying that the time is ripe for change: “The promise of diversity, inclusion and social justice hangs in the balance.”

*Diversity Training that Generates Real Change is published by Berrett-Koehler.


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