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Why Diversity training fails

Aston Business School

Why Diversity Training Fails

Do you often find yourself treating your colleagues differently on the basis of their race or gender?

I often pose this question to begin workshops, and I’m normally met with a confident “No”, along with a bunch of uncomfortable stares.

Yet unfairness persists. The glass ceiling remains firmly in place. Women and ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented and often underpaid in many fields.

While open prejudice and discrimination remain pressing issues in workplaces around the world, the more elusive challenge facing many modern organisations is that of unconscious bias. This is not a new concept, nor will it be unfamiliar to many readers. So why is it that both public and private organisations have struggled to overcome bias among their employees, despite the best attempts that millions of dollars can buy?

The answer is right there in the name itself: unconscious. By its very nature, we’re not aware when it’s impacting our decisions. To go even further, it’s in our very nature not to be.

We humans like to think of ourselves as purely rational beings, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s not to say we’re not capable of rationale thought. However, to deal with the sheer number of actions and decisions the brain must process each and every waking minute, it often attempts to automate as many of these as possible.

What’s worse, as it turns out, people are incredibly resistant to the notion that they may not be nearly as rational as they think.

The initial thinking of many organisational researchers was that by simply making employees aware of bias, it would be reduced. There was some mixed support for this in the laboratory, but the results have not translated well to practice.

In a comprehensive review of the existing literature, researchers concluded that many diversity training programs, and particularly those which focused on bias, had negligible long-term effects. The failure was particularly pronounced in mandatory programs, which is troubling, as the people most likely to benefit from such trainings are often the least likely to volunteer.

This shouldn’t be surprising. We’re talking about cognitive processes ingrained in us over thousands of years of human evolution. Sorting this out in a once-a-year, two-hour, diversity-appreciation workshop was always going to be a risky proposition.

What researchers are beginning to propose instead, however, is a change of focus. Rather than trying to change the way the individual employee thinks, how can we instead change the context in which they think.

This approach is built on the emerging field of behavioural economics, and notably, “Nudge Theory”, as put forward by University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler. Briefly, this describes impacting peoples’ decision-making with generally minor changes to the context in which the choice is made. Smaller plates cause people to consume less food, being informed that your neighbours have voted makes you more likely to vote; these types of things.

This way of thinking provides a way forward for organisations and diversity. We need to outsmart our brains.

Rather than attempt to ‘cure’ all employees of bias, why not change the context of the workplace to influence people to make unbiased decisions. Tactics like removing names from resumes force hiring managers to think more deliberatively and rationally when assessing a candidate. Perhaps companies set “homogeneity reduction goals” versus “diversity targets.” Researchers, including my colleagues and myself at Aston Behavioural Insights Centre, have already begun testing the effectiveness of these types of solutions.

There can be no question that workforce diversity remains a massive issue as we enter 2017. There’s both a business and a moral imperative to make it work. While far from providing a complete solution, this rethinking of how we approach diversity training shows a promising path forward.

This blog post has been produced in support  of the GBCC’s Growth Through People campaign. The views expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the GBCC.