Diversity and inclusion concerns are largely a product of our inability to recognize and value alternative viewpoints. This inability, whether it is conscious (knowing) or unconscious (unknowing), is labeled as “bias.” Let’s remember a few other things about bias. One is that bias is normal. However, it can be inappropriate. Two is that bias can exist across different social groups as well as within the same social group based upon only bits of information. Unfortunately, some bits of information may be “alternative facts” or, worse yet, “fake news.” Both of these can lead to inappropriate conclusions and subsequent actions. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) training can help to raise awareness and the potential to mitigate the negative impacts of bias. However, if done poorly, D&I training can also have the opposite outcome and can potentially hardwire biased viewpoints. Why?

Most of what we know and use to determine our response to any given situation has come from what we have either formally or informally learned through experience. In 1996, organizational behavior analyst and management consultant Margaret Wheatley and her colleague Myron Kellner-Rogers wrote that some science proposes we use only 20% of what we see from outside through our eyes to create opinions. That would mean at least 80% of the information we use to create opinions is already in our brains, informed by what we have learned. Is it possible that some of the 80% is not accurate or fully informed? Of course.

To add insult to injury, we are overwhelmed with information, which makes learning more of a chore. As a result, some suggest we are largely on autopilot when it comes to our responses to stimuli. Let’s face it, going above the 20% we see takes energy. Effective D&I training can reform aspects of the 80% of the information in our brains and raise awareness about the 20% we see. So, how can one get the highest value when it comes to training on D&I?

Jane Elliott’s controversial 1968 blue eye/brown eye experiment enlightened us to the effectiveness of her training approach. In this exercise, eye color (blue or brown) of each third-grader defined inferiority and superiority and determined whether he/she received special treatment, recognition and privileges. Brown-eyed students were the ones named as superior on the first day of the exercise. On the second day, the blue-eyed students were superior. However, Elliott’s observation was that the blue-eyed students treated the brown-eyed students with more respect than the blue-eyed students received on the first day. Her theory was that the blue-eyed students knew how disrespect looked, felt and sounded, and they did not want to inflict the same kind of treatment as they had received on the brown-eyed students. Elliott’s exercise left lasting emotional memories and learning for some of her students. Yet, it left lasting scars on some in the Riceville, Iowa community who felt they were portrayed poorly and also that the third-graders were too young for that type of training.

In parallel, the focus in the workplace is to get large numbers of employees through a few hours of D&I training that is often mandatory. Some may leave the training with a false sense of mastery relative to cultural competence and others may feel bad about themselves as they are exposed to stereotypes or power imbalances and as they are psychologically unable to access and dispel how they arrived at questionable beliefs.

So, what is a D&I trainer to do? In this example, four things come to mind. Leaders of these initiatives should ensure the training:

1. is audience appropriate,

2. has elements of consent,

3. upholds the dignity of all and

4. inspires confidence in all.

What are deficient and efficient practices of organizations with high impact D&I cultures when it comes to training? Researchers such as Franklin, Paradies, and Herring (paywalls) say that deficient practices focus solely on learning that is event-based (e.g., Ethnic Lunch Days) and solely on teaching about differences. Events such as Ethnic Lunch Days may lack repeatable and value-added lessons. Teaching solely about differences may inadvertently backfire by raising emotional distress and reinforcing stereotypes. As an example, years later, some members of the Riceville community still believe Elliott’s exercise portrays the community as bigoted.

We know and can back it up with research that D&I efforts in the workplace also come with challenges such as:

• Emotional conflict among co-workers, which may result in diminished group cohesiveness, increased absenteeism and increased turnover.

• Reduced communication.

• Lower performance.

• Lower quality due to positions being filled with unqualified workers.

Some say that D&I can be counterproductive and harmful to business, arguing it impedes group functioning and that diversity has negative effects on business performance. However, I say the benefits outweigh the challenges — especially when we address the challenges. When we do so, efficient practices prosper in organizations that possess an openly and widely communicated pro-diversity reputation. Their actions and their training align and their focus is on increasing fairness and equity. They promote training that helps people to work together more effectively and productively.

Training such as emotional intelligence, understanding the self and others, teamwork, conflict management, building trust, critical thinking, meeting and process facilitation and effective communication help minimize the inherent conflict that comes with D&I. When we invest in keeping employees’ skills up to date, we also increase their ability to bring their differences to the table when we include them. Their increased confidence and skills in effectively communicating with others increases the chances of them being present, heard and respected.

Isn’t it time to change our training practices to get the highest return on investment possible on our D&I efforts? If you think so, then also focus training efforts on helping employees to understand themselves and to communicate and work more productively with others.

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