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Diversity in teams

Human Resources

Diversity training is a conversation, not an education

Published 2 August 2022 in Human Resources • 6 min read

Implicit bias training does not bring the desired results. Organizations should focus on helping employees to discuss diversity with each other and implement the outcomes of these conversations. 

 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) training is big business. By some estimates, US companies alone were spending US$8bn on training in 2017. Since then, the death of George Floyd and subsequent race-related protests around the world have likely increased corporate interest in DE&I training. In a United Minds review of 277 large companies in the US, UK and Canada, 77% of DE&I leaders reported budgets of over US$10m, with the top priority being DE&I training.

Typically, such training takes the form of implicit bias training. Yet, a review of 30 studies of implicit bias suggested that such training does not bring the desired results. Similarly, a study from HBR found that a one-hour online training session does very little to affect the behavior of men or white employees, who are often the primary target of such sessions.

In many ways, this is not surprising. Implicit bias is only part of the DE&I story, and training writ large is just one part of an organizational system that needs to be in place to support DE&I initiatives. It must be surrounded by an extensive change management program that addresses structural issues, such as hiring and promotion, salary benchmarking. Perhaps more importantly, it needs to be accompanied by cultural transformation that addresses how we perceive reality, how we talk with each other, and behave on an everyday basis. It’s only then when we see significant progress with DE&I initiatives. 

The death of George Floyd and subsequent race-related protests around the world have likely increased corporate interest in DE&I training

Learning to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is all about learning that we all face different realities, that some of us face significant obstacles in life, and then internalizing these learnings and acting upon them. This is a complex set of learnings and actions that cannot be reduced to a teaching a single skill.

For DE&I initiatives to work, we need to see others as individuals rather than representatives of a particular race or sexual orientation. We also need to see ourselves as products of a particular system of privilege or discrimination. We need to become inquisitive and start asking questions such as: “What does this person’s life look like on an everyday basis? And how is that different from mine? What do they believe to be true? And how is that different from mine, and why?” This is an ongoing journey on the part of each individual, rather than education in the traditional sense.

This means that you need to create safe spaces where people can talk and ask these questions, and reflect.  This is not easy at all. Consider, for example, gay and lesbian DE&I events. I often see that the people who show up are gay people and women. Straight men seem to stay away because of perceived stigma attached to their attendance. As a consequence, the conversation does not happen at scale. This calls for normalizing the attendance at such events, something that is rarely thought about.

Straight men seem to stay away from gay and lesbian DE&I events because of the perceived stigma attached to their attendance.

Time for some healthy discomfort

Of course, these types of discussions will not make for comfortable listening for all. But, honestly, if everyone is very comfortable during DE&I conversations, then these conversations are not going deep enough. To tell people that their world view on a particular matter might not be universally valid, and in fact might be completely wrong, should be a source of discomfort. In my experience, the discomfort, grief and often rejection of the whole conversation comes from those who have historically been in privileged positions, and who are now made aware of that privilege. 

I always prepare executives for such discomfort, grief, and rejection, and recommend that they engage with it, ask where it comes from, and deal with it. For example, I often observe that talented executives do not feel uncomfortable during DE&I conversations, knowing that they would be successful regardless of any conditions they face. Others, who might perceive that their success could have been aided by who they are, rather than their talent, are more likely to exhibit annoyance, resistance and attempt to justify the status quo. It’s therefore important to acknowledge those feelings and concerns, and explore together where they come from, and how they can be handled.

This is the difference between single and double loop learning, a theory first put forward by Chris Argyris. Single loop learning, Argyris wrote, is equivalent to a thermostat which will turn down the heating when a certain temperature is reached. It is engaging with a problem from a reactive standpoint, falling back on previous experience. Double loop learning would allow the thermostat to go a level deeper and question itself as to whether it should be set at a fixed temperature. It allows participants to take a step back and challenge underlying assumptions and reverse the process that leaves organizations with the inability to uncover errors and other unpleasant truths.” Through proper discussion, the problems themselves become an opportunity for reflection and a way to implement change.

The process is akin to engaging in a therapeutic conversation, trying to pinpoint what are the actual concerns and where the anger and alienation stems from. If that can be established, it is easier to alleviate it in a way that benefits all. This calls for a complex set of conversations, and, once again, preparing your executives for such complex conversations should be at the heart of your DE&I training.

“We should be engaging our executives in regular DE&I trainings, and with every training we should expose them to more information, more points of view, and most importantly to different ways of taking about DE&I, and dealing with the discomfort.”

Keep the message coming

The complexity of the task at hand calls for frequent repetition. In many ways, it should be no different from cybersecurity training in any organization. By now, we all have to go through these mandatory trainings that remind us to behave in a secure way through hundreds of different scenarios. The messages tend to be repetitive, and yet every single scenario presented teaches us something new, and brings a new level of protection.

The same should happen for diversity and inclusion. We should be engaging our executives in regular DE&I trainings, and with every training we should expose them to more information, more points of view, and most importantly to different ways of taking about DE&I, and dealing with the discomfort. Like the cybersecurity trainings, this should be mandatory. It might sound draconian, but if we are willing to go to extreme steps to protect machines from humans, why would we not do the same to protect humans from other humans? 

Authors

Misiek Piskorski

Mikolaj Jan Piskorski

Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Asia and Oceania

Mikołaj Jan Piskorski, who often goes by the name Misiek, is a Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Asia and Oceania. Professor Piskorski is an expert on digital strategy, platform strategy, and the process of digital business transformation. He is Program Director of the Digital Strategy Course.

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