Three Steps to Successful Diversity Training: A View from the Trenches

The Starbucks event in Philadelphia led to a nationwide day of implicit bias training. It also prompted a memory of mine and alerted me to why most diversity and sensitivity training is not delivering value. 

It was 1996. I was a new young trainer working for the Museum of Tolerance’s Tools for Tolerance(R) for Professionals, facilitating a diversity class for 25 officers from a large city police agency. It was my first program, and as I started I could feel the proverbial butterflies in my stomach. But that was nothing compared to what was yet to hit me. We used Museum exhibits as a springboard to talk about bias, prejudice, discrimination, and racism in both historic and contemporary contexts. One participant went through the entire museum with his back to every exhibit. When we reconvened in the classroom for discussion and workshops, he gave us the shoulder. He sat sideways and refused to face us. When I asked him about it, he told me he resented being sent to “sensitivity training” and protested the mandate to be there. I was taken aback by his level of animosity. It took me a while to accept that this was not about me, but about his feelings toward his agency and the topic. 

Since then, I have worked in the field of diversity and inclusion and have listened to thousands of voices on the topic. The programs I have helped develop and deliver have trained over 150,000 participants internationally. Acutely aware of the struggles of program participants, I offer two primary reasons for the inadequacy of existing programs:

The first challenge facing most diversity and inclusion training is the word “training”. Training programs generally provide information, teach process, view relationships between people as transactional, and are largely about compliance. Training may imply that there is a panacea. I recall that in courtesy or customer service training, we were taught what to say, how to say, and when to say when interacting with a customer. Once, we were told to create baseball card-sized reference cards as prompts for our interactions with minorities. We were asked to name these cards “The Ten Ways to Treat an (fill in the blank) American”. Many of us refused. We knew that it would result in artificial communication which the listener would discern as being inauthentic. The bigger question became, “How do we get people to mean it?”

Inter-relational topics like diversity do not always work well in “training”. Whereas training may be designed to provide the tools for interaction, it does not actually require the one thing that can almost guarantee its success: a changed mindset able to deliver authentic care. Diversity initiatives require genuine interactions. They are the keystones to successful programs. 

The second challenge to address is how we prepare people to engage in these initiatives. Program developers often assume that participants are ready and open to participate. But this is rarely true. No topic is more likely to trigger defensiveness than diversity. When conversations turn to race, no one wants to be perceived as racist. Fear can shut down conversations. How can we shift the mindset from arms-across-the-chest defensiveness to one of curious inquiry and active participation? 

Here are three suggestions:

1. Create a learning mindset with the objective to grow understanding of others. The intent is to create the clearest path for listening, focusing away from self to get a deeper sense of another person’s experience. 

2. Learn and practice the skills of listening deeply and asking powerful questions. This is not about discussion or debate; the objective is to understand perspective. We do not need to “agree to disagree”; we do not need to come to consensus. Both sides simply need to feel heard and understood.

3. Accept that these conversations are going to be messy and will create discomfort for many people. Experiencing discrimination of any kind is painful. We must sit with that person’s discomfort. When we really understand the impact of discrimination, we can increase our capacity to detect lower levels of bias within ourselves, not just the large ones that lead to lawsuits.

I once worked with a leadership program for middle managers. The participants were already familiar with one another and had engaged in dialogue around other leadership issues. Using their experience with listening and speaking to one another, we engaged them in candid conversations over difficult questions such as: Should we have white affinity groups? Does racial profiling really exist? What about reverse discrimination? We gave them a safe space to ask hard questions. At times, the conversations were heated, and people felt discomfort. We did not necessarily get to agreement, but we all gained perspective and identified possible biases within our own prior perspectives. All felt committed to become more cognizant of these subtle behaviors in themselves and in others as they move forward. They also discussed specific ways in which they could be each other’s allies and help intervene in uncomfortable situations. They made a commitment to do things differently. Not one person left that interaction unchanged.

Successful diversity and inclusion initiatives that focus more on genuine interactions than on the delivery of information will yield better results. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to helping people feel like that they belong in an organization rather than just fit in, but as we transform our approach to conventional diversity and inclusion training, we will transform the outcomes we see. 

Share this post