Any objective person would admit that there has been discernable progress when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I) training for most organizations. In the past, diversity sessions placed an emphasis on legalities and affirmative action. Over time, the discussion shifted to increasing awareness and by the 1990s, the focus was on inclusion. More recently, learning has centered on micro-inequities, cultural competencies and unconscious bias — all of which are important. But the result of this evolution in training has largely been an increase in knowledge by addressing subjects like:

  • The legal parameters of discrimination.
  • Imbalances and unfairness at work.
  • Visible and invisible differences among people.
  • The business case for D&I.
  • Sensitivity to unconscious bias.
  • Micro-inequities and stereotypes.
  • Cultural awareness and cultural competencies.

What these training topics have in common is that they improve people’s understanding of D&I and provide added information about differences. Undoubtedly, minds need to be expanded but inclusion is not about knowing, it’s about doing. For this reason, the next iteration of D&I training must go beyond inclusion “discussions” to inclusion “practices.”

D&I Training Going Forward

If the goal of D&I initiatives is to make organizations (and the people in them) more inclusive, then the outcomes suggest there is plenty of room to improve. After more than five decades of diversity training, only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are black, only 2% are Latino, roughly 2% are Asian, and only 6.6% are women. It can be argued that those of different age groups, sexual orientations, religious beliefs or backgrounds are not feeling significant improvements in their level of inclusion either. It’s no secret that skepticism regarding the effectiveness of diversity training has been rampant for years and the available data about its impact is clearly mixed.

Perhaps, the problem is that measurable change around inclusion is not something that can be achieved in a classroom setting — any more than it could help someone get in shape. Getting in shape requires actual activity, not just instruction. The same is true for inclusion. Teaching inclusive behaviors and allowing people to practice them for a period of time is the key to reducing bias in the workplace.

The empirical evidence supporting this approach is powerful and it is the future of D&I training.

The Science Behind Bias

Neurological studies have already shown that bias registers in the brain as a stress response — meaning cortisol levels typically increase when people interact with someone they perceive as different. The operative word here is “perceive.” Research has shown that if a person has limited levels of closeness with people of other races their lack of familiarity will create a slight increase in stress during interracial interactions. But further studies have shown that when a person develops familiarity with someone of a different race, it actually creates greater comfortability with others of that race. In other words, one of the secrets to changing our bias is working to develop greater familiarity with those we may have previously perceived as different. This means effective D&I training has to instruct participants in those behaviors that make others feel included then ask them to commit to certain practices for a period of time with those who are different than them. The aim is to create comfortability and change stress levels that indicate bias.

This theory is currently being tested at a major university to prove that diversity training can change bias if the training focuses on the right behaviors and people practice what they learn. The study is ongoing and scheduled for publication in the summer of 2020 and will look at stress levels during interrace interactions before and after people go through inclusion training and complete eight weeks of inclusion activities with someone of a different race.

Changing D&I Training for the Better

Here are some of the practices that are being tested and designed to produce healthier brain chemistry: Asking people to…

  • Get outside their limited circles and network more frequently with those who are different (reducing reticence and increasing rapport).
  • Overcome ignorance about differences by setting up opportunities to learn from one another (reducing ignorance and increasing empathy).
  • Respect cultural conditioning by adapting to one another’s preferences (reducing conformity and increasing comfortability).
  • Recognize unfairness and support equity for one another (reducing threats and increasing safety).
  • Avoid negative assumptions and assert confidence (reducing judgment and increasing affirmation).

Each of these activities is aimed at lowering stress and increasing positive brain chemistry while developing genuine connection and inclusion around differences.

Participants are already providing anecdotal evidence of greater closeness and personal growth but the biometric measurements are still in process. Even if the results are not entirely conclusive there is no doubt that D&I work must move in this direction to be meaningful. It is only when people act inclusively with others that bias and outcomes will truly change.