A 2021 CBS News “Sunday Morning” segment featured the unlikely friendship of former U.S. President Barack Obama and superstar entertainer Bruce Springsteen. In the interview, the two friends shared how their friendship grew despite the obvious differences. Obama is a highly educated politician from Hawaii. Bruce is from a blue-collar family in New Jersey. Despite these differences, they have both excelled in their fields, becoming house names recognized by people across the globe. But that is not the basis of their relationship. They deliberately set out to get to know each other and figure out what they had in common. In this case they were both driven to excel by a need to please their absent fathers. Starting with similarities before you focus on differences is a skill that can be learned.

Many organizations have opted for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training that is too often a one-hour video that everyone in the company is required to watch once a year. Then they wonder why nothing seems to have changed. As is usually true in so many interactions, you get what you pay for. In the case of quick-hit, low-cost, check-the-box DEI training, it is evident fairly quickly that the expected results for change in behavior and increased DEI awareness are sadly missing.

In fact, in many cases, hopes and expectations for a real commitment by the organization for DEI change have been raised and sadly have not even come close to being met. This can make things worse than having done nothing at all.

Effective DEI training takes a quite different approach. In our book, “Diversity Training That Generates Real Change, Inclusive Approaches That Benefit Individuals, Business, and Society,” we identify the attributes of effective DEI training that promote sustainable behavior change. None of these attributes are low-cost, quick hit, or check-the -box activities. All require time and commitment from all levels of the organization. The good news is that when done right, they will produce long-term sustainable change that will improve your organizational performance.

This process begins by having a clear expectation for your DEI efforts and for your DEI training outcomes. The most useful objective for DEI training that generates real change is for individuals to gain a personal sense of their own humanity and responsibility in moving DEI forward. More aware and committed individuals produce better teams. Better teams contribute to better enterprises. And, if we are smart, better enterprises can generate better, more inclusive societies.

Here are some of the attributes of effective DEI training to consider:

Facilitation Over Instruction

Pure instruction can elicit one of two reactions. Either the participant will seek to win by mastering the topic more than others (I got a 100% on the quiz) or they will resent being told how to think and feel about topics which can be emotional, personal and seemingly punitive. Just the idea that someone from the outside wants to tell us we are wrong is offensive to some.

Everyone Learns

Targeted audiences further exacerbate the feeling that the trainer is here to “fix” me. When training is focused solely on managers, or past offenders or white men in particular, it creates a stigma associated with an assumption that someone needed correction.

Strategic training has to remove any sense that anyone or any group is isolated as the “villain.” The fact is that the word “diversity” has come to mean race and gender differences for many. Trainers must not reinforce that notion by giving examples of, for instance, how white men have oppressed others, or how men have denigrated women or any “us vs. them” comparison.

It is important to talk about that pain from a sense of a “meritocracy of pain.” If you can do that, there is a real chance that people will begin to hear each other, find common ground, and truly understand that we are in this together and the only way to change it is to do it together.

Experiential Over Information

There is a wealth of emerging information about racism, genderism, bias, prejudice, stereotypes, brain mechanics, discrimination, tribalism and any number of other concepts that relate to the reality of an increasingly diverse society.

Many times, participants are led to learn an ever-expanding lexicon of diversity-related terms, but excessive information sharing can quickly lead to cognitive overload. We have learned that attendance does not mean participation; participation does not assume learning; learning does not ensure retention; and retention does not guarantee change. People have to have a reason to engage with new information. Please note: Their reason will not likely be your reason.

Customized Over Generic

Prepackaged, standard or generic training programs are not specific to any company’s needs or culture. They can give the impression that some outside entity is telling the company how to think, feel and act. It also implies that they have been doing things wrong all along. Generic means the trainers will not use language that is familiar to participants and will introduce concepts that have no immediate application in their workplace. Effective DEI training is meaningful and applicable to your specific organization’s needs. This also makes it much easier to measure effectiveness.

Tied to Strategy

Executing strategy requires that a person first understand what strategy means. Many practitioners, both internal and external, are not aware of the meaning or the implication of calling something “strategic.” DEI training should be directly related to the specific organizational objectives and to learners’ individual job roles. Without this connection, DEI training is predictably ineffective.

Practice Over Theory

One of the frequent traps that trainers fall into is to latch onto the latest theoretical concepts coming out of academia. Requiring people to become doctoral level students of esoteric concepts is not a winning formula. There is a difference between theory and practice. DEI training should be practical.

Attractive Experience

Mandated training has a special stigma attached to it. Leaders should be wary of mandating that people attend DEI training. Instead, particularly in a strong culture, everyone should be encouraged and specifically invited to participate in the session. Participants have to enter the training in the right state of mind for it to be effective. Focus on making the training so meaningful and effective that you have waiting lists to get in.

Outcome Focused

What is your motivation for conducting DEI training? If you do not have a clear business objective, you are probably just checking the box to make it appear that you have a serious interest in becoming more diversity mature. That seldom leads to success.

Finally, if DEI training is treated as a singular, isolated, one-off event it will predictably not be effective. Conducting training as a way of saying “we are doing something about diversity” is simply a waste of money, time and resources.

Whatever steps you take regarding DEI training, it’s important to realize that an informed, empowered and educated workforce is watching. Gone are the days when organizations could hire one token candidate and claim success. Analytics and data are on DEI’s side.

The value of investing wisely cannot be overstated when selecting how to proceed, or recalibrate, DEI work in your organization. Authentic and courageous leadership will be necessary to move DEI work forward. The low-cost, quick hit, check-the-box options can be seductive and create the illusion of a quick-fix to a very complex subject. In DEI work, the “silver bullet” simply does not exist. The dividends that effective DEI training will bring will be well worth your investment and will be sustainable over time.

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