Leaders across the country have woken up to systemic bias and are now prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their organization. They’re tackling the problem by providing training on unconscious bias, hosting discussions on race and gender, or announcing new anti-discrimination policies.

Making space for these difficult conversations is key to transforming organizations from the inside out — but why are some still failing to see long-term results? Unfortunately, many diversity initiatives are putting too much emphasis on theory rather than training people with the skills they need to put inclusion into practice. After all, lectures on their own don’t work.

DEI programs aim to achieve more participation and engagement from underrepresented groups, but poor skills training can affect whether behavior change happens in the long term. Although 21st-century leadership skills are integral to achieving an equitable workplace, only 21% of senior leaders have received training on how to manage diverse groups of employees, according to Brandon Hall Group’s 2019 “Women in Leadership Study.”

What Is Inclusive Leadership?

By identifying, defining and measuring inclusive leadership competencies, we can use them to evaluate leadership effectiveness and promotion. Take engagement: What does this skill look like? We could train leaders in including voices in meetings and decision-making or developing diverse leaders across demographic groups and backgrounds. Then, we could evaluate them on those skills. The goal would be for leaders not only to embody inclusive values but to have the skills needed to implement an objective approach that can create sustainable change.

The Need for Accountability

Training succeeds when learners have the opportunity to practice new skills immediately and are held accountable for them. To that end, your organization will need to create an environment that holds people accountable to each other. You can even build accountability directly into the program. One effective approach is to assign accountability partners to be “partners in practice” — partners who can support each other, be a sounding board for each other and remind each other to keep at it.

Reframing Flawed Assumptions

When it comes to DEI training, it’s important to remember that most people aren’t aware of the biases that drive their behavior and decisions in the workplace. Too often, when they are, they don’t know what do about them. People need specific, individual actions they can take to change. Using a reframing approach, based on cognitive behavior therapy research, can help. It teaches learners to slow down their thinking process and uncover their own biases using a five-step process in which participants:

    1. Recognize their bad habits.
    2. Identify any negative emotion that arises from those habits.
    3. Uncover the flawed assumption.
    4. Evaluate its roots.
    5. Reframe the assumption and consciously choose a response rather than acting from a place of automatic thinking.

Reframing flawed assumptions helps people view their behaviors from other perspectives and helps build an environment of psychological safety — a fundamental element of an inclusive organization. In this environment, people begin to shed the personal blame and threats that stem from bias and understand their own assumptions about themselves, others and the way things work. By incorporating this process into an immediately implementable tool, training can encourage employees to speak up and learn from one another.

A Continuous Learning Process

Another important note is that it takes time for people to change their behavior. A single training class will not cut it. Learning has to be incorporated into team meetings and discussions with peers, role-modeled by leaders, and reinforced by learning and development (L&D).

Developing inclusive leadership skills is a continuous process in which people are confronted with real opportunities to change and understand their behavior. Becoming an inclusive leader takes time; there’s no quick fix. But by creating the space and accountability for individuals to move from awareness to action, your organization will be well on its way toward achieving equity.