The Traps – and Triumphs – of D&I Training
Published: Dec 11, 2020
BY ALVIN S. ALBERT
At one of these trainings, I anxiously waited in the breakroom turned training room for my attendees to show up.
The first person to show was my contact person, who proceeded to “warn” me about the group: “There are going to be a couple of attendees who won’t be happy about being here. I’ll make a brief speech to begin and then turn it over to you.”
My next arrival was happy to see me and let me know why. “I’m glad you’re here. This company has some real issues. I hope you’re gonna set folks straight.” Not exactly what I wanted to hear at 7 a.m. on a cold morning in the rural Pennsylvania hills. It does, however, represent the idea that many people have of diversity and inclusion training. It is either a check-the-box mandate or a quick panacea for all of the company’s cultural ills.
THE CONTINUED CASE FOR D&I TRAINING
You can find exhaustive studies on the business case for workplace diversity. However, debate has always raged concerning the efficacy of D&I training. I believe the definitive answer to that debate should come from the rank and file. In 2018, the Boston Consulting Group surveyed 16,500 racially and ethnically diverse employees in 14 countries and asked them to rate the relative effectiveness of 31 diversity initiatives. Across all diversity groups, “formal training” ranked in the top four in importance. Recently, we have seen high-profile training initiatives in companies such as Starbucks and Sephora, both of which closed their stores for all-employee racial bias training. It appears that, regardless of modality, quality, or focus, D&I training is still the most efficient way to at least get the ball rolling on a more inclusive and respectful workplace.
THE TRAPS OF D&I TRAINING
A 2016 article in The Economist, “Diversity Fatigue,” suggested that 12 of the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from human resources and I’m here to organize a diversity workshop.” While the previous statement is somewhat in jest, there are certain “traps” inherent in D&I training—traps for the organization and the attendees. These traps have been well researched and documented. My job as facilitator is to be aware of them and prepare accordingly. Knowing and addressing the traps are key to a successful training session.
Trap No. 1. The training is a mandatory exercise that needs to be suffered through. One of the main drivers of interpersonal conflict is the feeling that control is being taken from you. Why wouldn’t this apply to mandatory D&I training? If I am forced to attend, then the only control I still have is to go grudgingly and with minimal participation. Rarely is D&I training ptional—and rarely do we address that elephant.
Trap No. 2. I will be singled out and put on the “hot seat.” Surprisingly, this applies to just about anyone in attendance at a D&I training. Attendees are often given very little, if any, information about the content of the training and are left to their own assumptions. These assumptions can include training scenarios where someone is blamed, embarrassed, or protected.
Trap No. 3. This one-and-done class will fix everything. For organizations that don’t have formal D&I programs or strategies, the training is often the only initiative. Issues often come up during training that are beyond the trainer’s scope and authority to address. This is especially true in full-day and multiday trainings with an open dialogue. Organizations must expect that a properly facilitated training may uncover issues, and solutions, it had not anticipated.
I have encountered all of these traps in my training experiences. Actually, let me rephrase that: I encounter all of these traps in every experience.
DEFUSING THE TRAPS
One of the courses I facilitate is AMA’s Leading in a Diverse and Inclusive Culture. I am fortunate that the content in that course is consistent with my personal philosophy on D&I training, in that it should focus on unconscious bias, cultural competency, behavioral styles, and personal values. These are universal themes that are all encompassing and guilt-free. They do not dodge uncomfortable issues of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., but put them in proper context. My goal in every training is to leave the group better equipped than when we started.
I recently watched a war movie where the soldiers were punished by being assigned landmine duty. One soldier would detect the landmine, and another soldier would dig it up and defuse it. The objective was to clear a safe path of passage for the troops. D&I trainers have the same responsibility. While all experienced D&I trainers have their own “secret sauce” for addressing the traps, here are the primary concepts I emphasize to defuse them.
ADDRESS THE ELEPHANTS
Getting back to that recent training session I led, a rather large field technician from the back of the room loudly proclaimed, “This is some %&#!. Why do we have to be here?” (I later discovered that the training was taking place during some of the attendees’ lunch break. Lucky me.)
My response was, “I agree. Having a training forced on you can suck, but let me ask you two questions. How long have you worked here, and why do you think the company is addressing workplace policy, harassment, and diversity today?”
He replied, “I’ve been here 12 years, and I think we have to be here because someone probably screwed up.”
I said, “Yep. Thank you. Exactly right. Someone screwed up, and I want to make sure that you know the policy so that you’re not next. I don’t want you to do anything that puts your job in jeopardy and waste those 12 years you have invested.”
He was fully cooperative for the training and turned out to be a very decent guy who just needed to be heard.
The law of consistency is an influencing skill technique popularized by Robert Cialdini. In short, it means that people are more likely to cooperate if they feel that your position and actions are consistent with theirs. If I acknowledge and validate your concern, then your resistance is unfounded.
If I am aware that the training group has certain opinions or thoughts about the training, I address these at the outset. This enhances the comfort level and, hopefully, signals that this training will be different from previous ones.
While my response may be contrary to D&I Training 101, it is a real and authentic response. As workplace D&I training becomes more common, I believe learners will expect a more realistic and authentic training experience.
ADDRESS THE INDIVIDUAL
Whenever possible, I try to drive all exercises, data, and discussions down to a personal level. It’s not about just hitting all the buzzwords (I rarely use the word “diversity”) and legal jargon. It’s the goal of any professional development training: introspection and improvement.
Individuals in D&I training are asking themselves, “How does this relate to my personal actions and beliefs?” Getting people to share their personal revelations can pay huge dividends—and it’s the ultimate purpose of D&I training.
Nothing validates the training more than having one of the participants acknowledge a breakthrough or confirm a concept. Even neutral or somewhat negative contributions (done respectfully) can signal safety and a willingness to be transparent and candid. It also can signal that the training is about the participants rather than a canned corporate mandate.
In a multiday training, I will often comment on how well different individuals in the training have treated each other— and how that treatment impacts me. My objective is to relate the entire training to universal themes valued by each individual—respect, culture, responsibility, belonging, family, and so forth. I know it’s a worn cliché to say “If I help one person, then my time has been worth it.” In this case, it may be true. If a manager of 10 people becomes more self-aware and culturally competent, you’ve just impacted 11 lives.
ADDRESS THE “SO WHAT?”
When designing activities for my curriculum, I always ask myself, “So what? What is the payoff of this activity or exercise?” Practitioners and organizations should ask the same question of D&I training. In the overwhelming majority of my trainings, I am not tasked with finding solutions. I don’t have the time, nor do I have adequate background information—but the attendees do.
In one particularly delicate D&I leadership training with a group of managers, some of whom did not like each other, one of the younger supervisors said, “We used to have company outings. What happened to that?” This question resulted in a very positive ending, with the group brainstorming and recording ideas for social functions. So what? Well, they were trying to solve a real problem. How would they build inclusion, relationships, and cultural competence when they really didn’t know each other? The group then moved on to creating a list of action items for senior management that I agreed to pass along. As a D&I trainer, I can’t fix everything in a day, but I can help.
Problem solving and action planning were not in the design of this class, but it was paramount for the attendees to have a sense of accomplishment. Whether an organization is training a select group or the entire employee base, most want a return on their training dollars. That return is best initiated by actionable strategies for the individual and the organization. Otherwise, we’ve just spent two days “checking the boxes.”
THE FINAL CASE FOR TRAINING
There can be several identifiable benefits of a well-done D&I training:
Conflict management. In many of my D&I trainings, there is unresolved conflict among participants. D&I training can be a more subtle form of conflict management training— without the stigma. I once conducted Leading in a Diverse and Inclusive Culture training in arguably the smallest room I’ve ever trained in. A dozen managers, some with ongoing conflicts, had to practice being civil, respectful, and collaborative in a confined space (I made sure to point this out to them at the end).
Policy review. In a customized AMA class on “Respect and Dignity in the Workplace,” a D&I policy review was incorporated into the activities. While all formally acknowledged “reading” the policy, the training made it obvious that few had really reviewed and understood it. The new policy was an excellent rationale for the timing of the training.
Employee well-being. When employees feel a lack of belonging or inclusion, they eventually leave. Knowing that my company recognizes an issue and has spent the time and resources to address it can make a big difference in physical wellness, retention, and engagement.
Better relationships. The ultimate goal of the training is to deepen understanding among participants. Deeper understanding ideally translates into deeper relationships.
Improved interpersonal skills. One of the top challenges I hear in training is, “Things change so fast, I don’t know what’s acceptable anymore.” D&I training is often the only opportunity that employees have to openly discuss communication and conduct norms. We tend to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. Training hopefully raises the comfort level and allows individuals to be more transparent and transformative.
No two D&I trainings are ever the same. Different personalities, different workplace cultures, and different reactions keep it interesting. The same traps that make D&I training so challenging also make it exhilarating and worthwhile.
I’ve done training on a dozen different subjects to hundreds of audiences, including topics such as leadership training to make you a better boss and communication training to make you a better counselor. Exploring the concepts of empathy, respect, and belonging in D&I training can ultimately make you a better person.
About the Author: Alvin S. Albert is an attorney and the chief facilitator at Smart Work Cultures. As a trainer, he helps managers and teams develop influencing skills to transform conflict into cooperation. He has been an AMA faculty member since 2008.