Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training is easy… if you’re ticking a box. But if you want to create real change? That’s trickier. DEI training that is transformative — that changes the way people think and do and motivates them to change the world around them — requires more than transferring new knowledge and skills. It requires the transference and garnering of the tools, capacity, confidence and motivation in learners to be an effective change-maker in their own community.

How do you do that? Here’s four things you can do to accelerate your efforts and create training experiences that transform learners in the classroom to change-makers in their companies.

1. Take your time.

One of the most common pitfalls with DEI training is rushing it. Often, companies try to shoehorn this learning into a one hour slot or a brief “lunch and learn.” The temptation is understandable — people are busy and time is hard to come by. However, if you want to go beyond “ticking the box,” you have to spend time on DEI training. DEI is a wide, complex, historical and changeable terrain; understanding it and knowing how to progress it takes time. And the only way to cut down this time is to prioritize certain aspects over others (“this quarter we’ll talk about racism and next quarter we’ll move on to sexism”), present DEI without any nuance or flexibility or simply remain at the awareness level. All of these approaches are a problem. Prioritizing certain DEI issues over others tells colleagues from the deprioritized marginalized communities that their experiences and struggles are unimportant. Avoiding nuance and flexibility makes using the learning in everyday life (where subtlety and complexity are always present!) impossible. And staying at the awareness level leaves people with motivation but with no knowledge or skills to take action toward a more equitable future.

Rushing DEI training will never deliver real progress and, thus, wastes time and resources.

2. Scope out the problem.

Connected to the best practice above, for transformative DEI training that goes beyond the dreaded “tick-box,” you need to ensure that learners deeply understand the problem at hand. Quite often, people think they “get” what the issues are with DEI. However, this often means they understand what we might call “surface” issues — for example that there might be pay gaps or lower promotion rates for members of certain marginalized groups. What is often missing, however, is an understanding of the root causes of these issues — what is beneath the surface and causes the range of inequities and exclusions we see in our organizations and others. The invisible dynamics and processes that, even when we have good intentions, can be creating inequities and unfairness in our organizational culture and outputs.

For example, we often see organizations tackling sexism through “empowerment” or “confidence building” efforts for female staff. This is a classic example of how focusing on an outcome, rather than the root causes of inequity, can lead to solutions that are counterproductive. When we understand sexism as a system of inequity, we would understand that seeing women as “lacking confidence” is itself a sexist idea. And that, actually, for many women, the barriers they face are not a lack of confidence but the ways in which their confidence is often negatively interpreted and punished in the workplace, which discourages this characteristic in some women. We’ve all heard of confident women branded “bossy” or “abrasive,” while confident men are often labeled “decisive” and assertive.”

Only a deeper understanding here of the root causes of sexism allows us to understand where the real problem lies and therefore how we can best disrupt it. Without this, we’ll continue to see bountiful “empowerment sessions” for Women (and the like!) and other counterproductive solutions.

Surfacing and understanding the root causes of the problem allows us to act more effectively, sustainable, holistically and cost effectively with our DEI efforts.

3. Be visionary!

For DEI training to be effective and really deliver change, it needs to motivate people. People need to leave DEI training not just with tools and skills but also with the commitment and vision to create change. So, how can we use learning to motivate people to act for inclusion when they leave the classroom? We have to give people a robust vision — a roadmap — for what change can look like. This vision will be very different depending on the specific learning and their organization, sector and locus of control. Every DEI journey needs to include a thorough reflection on: what will change look and feel like in your organization? How will you get there (using all you’ve learned)? And, how will you know you’ve succeeded?

This might look like creating a vision statement or collaborative action planning. What’s always key is that this needs to be bold and deep. Visions, by definition, are not about what always feels possible – they’re about going beyond this to what may have never been done before. The scale of the problem, when it comes to DEI, is such that changemakers need ambitious visions for change – otherwise they won’t scratch the surface.

4. But also … be realistic.

Change-making is hard work. Ask anyone who has ever been involved in really shifting the dial on DEI — it’s tough! There are many obstacles and it can feel like lonely and overwhelming work at times. For a DEI learning journey to be transformative, it needs to not only acknowledge this reality but also give learners the tools and skills to overcome challenges when they inevitably occur.

  • How do you overcome naysayers?
  • How do you build momentum and get the resources you need?
  • How do you support people when they mess up to course correct and do better next time?

For robust, sustainable change-making, learners need to feel they have the confidence and capacity to tackle challenges and uphill battles head on to continue toward driving change. So, the learning needs to give them time to conquer challenges and should arm them with concrete, flexible tools that can help. For example, a framework for how to have “courageous conversations” when people observe colleagues furthering inequity and/or a structure for cascading knowledge and skills to wider teams can help ensure that learners aren’t on their DEI journeys alone. Equity is a team sport.