Let’s face it: Diversity training isn’t working—but it should

David Livermore once heard a man at the gym tell his friend he had to attend a diversity training workshop the next day. “Oh God!” came the reply. “That’s right up there with getting a root canal.”

The result of such negative reactions to diversity training is that when companies do invest in it, things often deteriorate. After diversity training, most managers from under-represented groups are worse off than before. Why is this?

My work with Nelson Mandela in South Africa 30 years ago and in complex and diverse cultural environments around the globe since then has taught me three reasons why diversity initiatives fail. Together with my U.S. Diversity and Inclusion expert, Sunny Lee-Goodman, we have identified a different approach. 

The Three Reasons for Failure

  1. Conversations about diversity and inclusion are sensitive. Often, individuals experience them as accusatory. Managers seldom know how to conduct sensitive conversations to yield positive outcomes. Employees do not know how to listen with open minds, especially when someone challenges their closely held assumptions.
  2. Companies outsource their diversity training to diversity experts. Every leader should be a diversity expert. A leader who cannot create and inspire an inclusive team of diverse people cannot be an effective leader in today’s work environment. Becoming proficient in diversity should be an integrated part of every leadership development program. When there is a need to teach it as a standalone, it should be positioned as leadership development rather than as “diversity training”.
  3. People are quicker to trust others whose backgrounds and values are like their own. We are slower to trust people from different backgrounds because we assume they have different values from ours. Most diversity programs do not openly acknowledge the reality of mistrust across cultures. Also, they fail to teach people how to inspire trust across cultural chasms. 

Checking Existing Programs

It might be helpful to check whether your current leadership development programs are designed to build inclusive leaders. Use the following questionnaire to audit their effectiveness in the area of inclusiveness.

On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very), rate your current leadership development program’s effectiveness in teaching leaders how to do the following:

  1. Raising sensitive issues with employees without causing them to become defensive. 
  2. Having sensitive performance conversations that create discomfort but are not experienced as accusatory or biased and thereby shut employees down.
  3. Listening with an open mind even when assumptions are being challenged. 
  4. Asking powerful questions that cause others to reconsider their assumptions.
  5. Becoming aware of making unfounded assumptions and jumping to false conclusions.
  6. Seeing a situation through the lenses of people from different cultures.
  7. Communicating with people from different cultures so that they hear what you intend.
  8. Enhancing connectedness with others even while confronting them rather than severing it.
  9. Talking and acting in ways that inspire trust across cultures and genders.
  10. Being receptive to criticism and making changes.

If your responses add up to 40 or more, providing that a critical mass of managers and leaders have experienced your training, your organization is ready tuned to the sensitive conversations that need to happen around diversity. If your score is less than 40, you might want to refurbish your leadership development program. It is not currently giving leaders the tools they need to inspire inclusiveness. 

A Different Approach

You have identified the need for diversity training; avoid jumping straight into providing a diversity program. Instead, consider offering employees and managers a preparatory program that gives them tools that go far beyond diversity and address issues highlighted in the survey questions above. These tools should also be applicable in all aspects of their lives. Later, these same tools can be applied to programs around unconscious bias and diversity. Having experienced the preparatory training, participants will embrace the new ideas and practices you teach without defensiveness, resentment, or fear. Subsequently, the ROI from your diversity training will escalate. Participants will thank you for changing their lives. 

Please reach out to Sunny or me if you would like to have a conversation. We can talk about how to enrich your existing leadership development program or explore ways to provide a preparatory program. Both approaches will open participants’ minds to promoting diversity and embracing it. The inclusive leaders you develop will enhance your company’s capacity for innovation and will protect its reputation. 

Share this post