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Why Your Traditional Diversity Training Program is Not Working

Fierce Ideas (purple lightbulb)

Each year, organizations invest a lot of time and millions of dollars into diversity programs.

I hate to break it to you, but the return on both the investment and expectations of traditional diversity efforts is falling terribly short.

As a baby boomer, my career followed the new path of diversity. It wasn’t about inclusion at all. It was about numbers. The intent was good. The thinking was that if you change the numbers you would change the culture. Fortunately, we have learned so much and still have so far to go.

Traditional programs are still not touching on some of the most critical issues that need to be addressed. In 2016, in a speech to the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar, diversity consultant Verna Myers said, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being invited to dance.” Traditional programs are just an invitation to the party. They become hollow attempts at cultural change.

Here are a few things that are not addressed in traditional programs:

The current state of affairs. Over the past couple of years, the geopolitical climate has been in upheaval and the related tension has found its way into the workplace. Our Fierce survey released earlier this year on diversity and discrimination revealed some startling statistics: 18% say they have seen others discriminated against based on race, 20% on political beliefs, and 21% on gender. Perhaps the most startling of all, one in five individuals surveyed have felt unsafe at work. For women, that increased to more than a quarter of those surveyed.

These stats should serve as an alarm bell for leadership. Traditional programs do not teach leaders the conversation skills necessary to navigate the issues related to physical and psychological safety in the workplace, including those caused by current social and political events.

The illusion of inclusion. While leadership should own the decision, it’s important for leaders to seek the input of their teams and genuinely take this input into consideration before finalizing the decision. An illusory approach to inclusion doesn’t fool employees. They will know, and it will come at a big cost to an organization’s culture by decreasing trust and morale. Employees need to know their input is valued. Inclusion, when practiced effectively, is anything but an illusion.

Conversations. Many diversity programs focus on shifting the behavior and mindset of each program participant. While this mindset shift is important, it only goes so far. Conversations, and the skills needed to have them effectively, are paramount for improving company culture. Inclusion requires conversations about what isn’t working so individuals and teams can collaboratively create alternatives.

So how can organizations produce tangible return on their diversity and inclusion strategies? Here’s a start:

1. Adopt the beach ball mentality. Our Fierce team model uses the analogy of a beach ball to introduce a new way of thinking. Each colorful stripe on the beach ball represents a single perspective. To see the full picture, or “the full beach ball,” each stripe is needed. Each person within an organization owns a piece of the truth, and actively seeking input is necessary to see the full truth of an organization. When leadership adopts the beach ball mentality, the organization takes a significant step towards true inclusion.

2. Implement conversations training, and mandate it across all leadership levels. Many organizations don’t realize that ineffective conversations are the leading cause of their business problems. The solution is knowing what to talk about, how to talk about it, and why it matters to the bottom line. Effective conversations are the key to producing any result, including improvements in company culture—this is why it’s imperative to equip leadership with the skills to have them.

3. Start having the tough conversations. Ignoring issues doesn’t work. Any problems that are swept under the rug will grow until they become so big that you have no choice but to deal with them. At Fierce, we use the term “Mokita”—that which everyone knows and no one speaks of. The only way to get the results you want is to deal with the elephant in the room by tackling tough challenges and interrogating reality through conversations. Work up the courage to speak with the people who matter most to the issue.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Our latest whitepaper, Build an Inclusive Culture: 3 Strategies to Maximize Innovation, provides an analysis of the problem and actionable solutions to transform your organization’s culture in a way that will lead to more innovation and measurable results.

There is an incredible amount of positive intention behind all diversity programs, but traditional training isn’t going to provide impact or the return you want to see in your organization. Let the unaddressed issues serve as a wake-up call, and begin taking the necessary steps to improve your current approach. You can’t afford not to.


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