This article was originally published in Forbes.
The focus this past year on women’s issues at work has triggered even more interest in diversity and inclusion (D&I) training efforts in the office. Many organizations have ramped up their efforts to improve the work situation for women, minorities and all employees, but the increased effort and training time doesn’t seem to be translating into progress. Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa and his colleagues at Mentora Institute (formerly known as Institute for Personal Leadership (IPL)) think they know why.
The Problem With Current D&I Initiatives
Not only do traditional diversity programs not work, but recent research shows that they can even have a negative effect on diversity outcomes. That is, they may actually lead to less diversity within the organization. If that’s not bad enough, the training may even reinforce stereotypes about a particular race or gender. Recent efforts to ramp up sexual harassment training has run into a similar barrier, and there is little evidence that harassment prevention training is effective either.
According to Wadhwa, the reason these traditional training methods don’t work is that D&I training is unlike any other type of training in the workplace. Teaching employees about D&I is not like teaching them how to make a powerful presentation, how to market a product effectively or how to produce and distribute widgets more efficiently. Instead, D&I training touches on individuals’ core beliefs. “D&I is deeply personal,” Wadhwa says. “It goes really deep into the core of who you are, how you were raised, dinnertime conversations with your family, things that happened to you at school. These dynamics have shaped your beliefs about humanity, whether some groups are superior or inferior, who gets it and who doesn’t, who is trustworthy and who is not.”
Basically, when the message to employees is “you’re broken and need to be fixed,” they may become resentful, and hold on to their beliefs even more strongly. Employees may nod and feign agreement during the training session, but if the message disagrees with their deep rooted views of the world, they’ll revert to doing what they think is right when the trainer is gone. Fortunately, Wadhwa offers solutions to get employees more invested in D&I initiatives.
This Isn’t About Helping the Organization, It’s About Helping Yourself
Because the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are so personal, Wadhwa believes individuals won’t be motivated to change because of a human resources initiative or because the organization says it’s a good idea. Therefore, the first step in training should be to convince managers and employees that this training is about helping them reach their own greatest potential at work.
Trainers need to tap into employees’ desire to be successful in their careers. It’s in the best interest of employees to eliminate their biases, because those biases may be holding them back from getting the best performance from themselves and others. Wadhwa believes every employee should be encouraged to practice what he calls personal leadership. What’s personal leadership? It’s all about bringing out the best in yourself, the best in others and the best in all situations. Personal leadership is particularly relevant to D&I. He asks, “How can you bring out the best in a situation if you’re not inclusive? The research shows that inclusion yields diverse points of view, which leads to better solutions. How can you get the best out of others if you are going to stereotype them? And limit and confine your views of their potential?”
In training, employees should be asked to reflect on their own biases. They should be encouraged to recognize how human it is to categorize people. We all have notions of how women typically behave and how men typically behave, but we also need to remember that bias isn’t just about gender and race. Bias is everywhere.
After employees realize the prevalence of bias, they should consider how this categorization of people has impacted them. Have others been biased against them? Have they been biased against others? And what was the impact? Employees need to realize not only how prevalent their biases are, but how their biases can hold them back—both at work and in their personal life. D&I failures impact everyone. It is only after employees are given this motivation to change their behavior, because of how it may limit them, that they become more open to change.
Focus On An Inner View Instead Of An Outer View
Once they are motivated to learn, employees can be taught strategies for reducing bias. But learning how to eliminate bias is not easy. Many of our biases are unconsciously triggered, making them particularly tricky to eliminate. Some say the solution is to train employees to treat everyone the same regardless of race or gender or any other categorical differences. Others suggest the answer lies in recognizing differences between groups and therefore treating people differently. Wadhwa says neither is completely correct.
Instead, he believes that we should do both. First, we can recognize that as human beings we are all more similar than we are different, and we should focus on our similarities—on our shared humanity. Second, we should strive to understand each individual for who they are. Instead of characterizing individuals by gender or race or other external characteristics, we should focus on the individual’s distinctive characteristics—their background, their feelings, what’s happening in their life right now. Look at their facial expressions, their eyes, and the energy they bring. Wadhwa suggests we all need to “focus more, be curious, be open, be 100% present, look within the individual not just at the individual.”
Focusing on our shared humanity and on each individual’s uniqueness takes effort, but Wadhwa argues the reward is enhanced leadership skills and a better performance from your team.
Don’t Wait For The Draining Of The Swamp, Become A Lotus
One final problem with current D&I initiatives is that their scope is too large. They’re trying to fix the whole world. “It’s a messy world out there, and leaders feel like they need to come in and drain the swamp,” Wadhwa argues. Instead, he suggests that these initiatives should focus on encouraging individual employees to become a lotus (a flower that blooms in the middle of muddy conditions).
Metaphorically speaking, when individuals take personal responsibility to try to limit their own biases and help others address their biases, they become a lotus in the swamp. They recognize the biases that are out there and develop strategies for how to best deal with them—even in an imperfect world. They set an example, inspire others, and the number of lotuses multiplies. Thus, one key aspect of D&I training should be to inspire change, one individual at a time.
Organizations spend about $8 billion per year on D&I training with little to show for their efforts. The swamp seems muddier than ever. It seems it’s time to start cultivating some lotuses.
This article was originally published in Forbes.