Courageous Inclusion Director, Evosis Limited.
The recent increase in visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement and awareness of racism in our societies, has led to a corresponding increase in awareness, dissatisfaction and trauma around racism in our organisations (and no doubt grievances and tribunals to come) from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). This upwelling emotion has resulted in organisations scrabbling to make statements of support and action to back them up. The go-to activities include an old favourite - unconscious bias training. However, evidence suggests unconscious bias training doesn't eliminate bias. Indeed it can even backfire and increase bias (e.g. ‘it’s okay to be racist because that’s how the human brain works’). Indeed, we could also argue – what now is still unconscious? I’m sure there’s a lot, and we also have lots of conscious awareness to process.
As a business psychologist, I understand brain functioning and how bias can be 'hard-wired' into how we process information and make decisions. However, it has never been my solution for diversity and inclusion training because no evidence understanding these processes or improves people’s ability to be inclusive of diversity. This blog outlines more impactful alternatives.
What’s the aim of diversity and inclusion training?
With any kind of adult development, the aim is to improve three key areas, attitudes, emotions and behaviour. Attitudes underpin and influence emotions which in turn influence behaviour.
Attitudes don’t just underpin everything we do; they are also enduring. Work by Ajzen (theory of planned behaviour), demonstrates that attitudes can predict behaviour when combined with other factors such as perceived social pressure, rewards or punishment. Attitude change can occur when; the source of influence is credible and ‘attractive’, the message is clear and repeated and the audience is open to change (Hovland, et al.). Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger) also states that where there is an inconsistency in thought, a psychological dissonance creates tension which we are motivated to resolve – thus changing our attitudes. A recent example of this is, following a raised awareness of racism in society, many white people have been perusing development to become anti-racist.
Emotional intelligence gained popularity in the 1990s following the publication of Daniel Goleman’s book. Emotional intelligence can be a predictor of career success as well as physical and mental wellbeing (The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace). Developing emotional intelligence begins with awareness and the ability to moderate how those emotions are demonstrated (through behaviour) in relationship to others.
Behaviours are the ultimate demonstration of development, they also moderate our relationships with others and create role modelling to spread development to teams, departments and ultimately organisational cultures. Behaviours directly impact on other people’s sense of belonging and their ability to be free with their identity, have a voice and claim power, leading to authenticity, reciprocity and justice (for more see the HSD model of Generative Engagement). Or indeed take other’s power away to subordinate whole groups of people. Inclusive behaviours at work can be described and measured by competency frameworks, embedded into appraisal processes.
What’s the alternative?: Perspective-taking (maybe)
Perspective-taking involves getting people to reflect on what it might be like for other people facing prejudice or disadvantage. This is often done through the use of scenarios or documentaries. It is the main alternative to unconscious bias training offered by the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development – U.K.) in its review of diversity training. It can also be enhanced by using the NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) technique of perceptual positioning, where you physically put yourself into someone else’s position. This can be impactful, however, having used this technique training 1,000s of leaders its shortcomings include; the individual’s ability (or lack thereof) to empathise with someone else and even if they are able to do this, the transfer of that empathy for someone else to a shift in their own attitudes, emotions and behaviours is a big leap which is often not achieved.
What’s the alternative?: Experiential learning (yes!)
Experiential learning has the advantage of being real (rather than based on scenarios). Leaders and teams have an experience, which they then process. The impact on their attitudes, emotions and resultant behaviour is therefore real and enduring. This process is based on Kolb’s learning cycle (described below).
Experiential learning typically takes place as part of a programme of development which includes multiple opportunities to have experiences and follow through the whole of the cycle. It also happens simultaneously on an individual and group level so the leaders develop themselves at the same time as how they interact with others. This process works so well with diversity and inclusion training as the diversity of the group provides rich learning experiences for all. With skilled facilitators this can be the best place to process topics such as white fragility, intersectionality and microaggressions as well as learning about the dynamics of power and dominance. Reflecting on an experience enables leaders to become aware of their attitudes and emotions, conceptualise adjustments and experiment with alternative behaviours based on them. Repeating this cycle often enough creates enduring change. We are currently running a number of these programmes so watch this space for evaluation data!
Historically, experiential learning has taken place in person, often in intensive programmes including multiple days together. In our new virtual reality, video conferencing tools such as zoom and information management (virtual whiteboards) such as Miro and Mural are enabling this learning to take place online. Typically, we work in smaller ‘chunks’ of time (e.g. 3-hour workshops) with increased frequency. Our experience so far is that this can be just as impactful, and even has advantages of increasing the diversity of groups where people are attending from across the globe from the comfort of their homes.
What really makes a difference?
Simply choosing experiential development programmes however is not enough. A CIPD review on D&I found that, as with other learning and development interventions, diversity training can be effective in promoting knowledge and skills when certain conditions are met. These include:
CIPD Evidence based review of diversity training