Unconscious bias training is often the go-to solution for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Companies in the U.S. spend an estimated $8 billion each year for leaders and high-potential employees to reveal unconscious biases and subtle discriminatory behaviors in the hopes of fostering a more inclusive environment. By and large, however, these types of initiatives have not led to long-term results.

The good news is that there’s a better way. Organizations have other options for developing dedicated leaders who take meaningful actions to ensure that underrepresented employees can thrive, instead of simply survive. Too often, however, companies treat leadership training and diversity and inclusion (D&I) training as separate initiatives. Organizations cannot isolate the latter and treat it as a luxury that they can only implement when they have extra budget. An organization’s attitude toward creating an inclusive culture and making all employees feel psychologically safe is an essential part of leadership. It’s plain and simple: A lack of diversity and inclusion is a symptom of a leadership problem.

So, what’s next? You may have tried everything to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in your workplace, but what actually works? One answer is investing in and nurturing a coaching culture.

Changing Behaviors for the Long Term

A 2017 meta-analysis of nearly 500 implicit bias studies found that attempts to correct underlying biases rarely result in long-term behavioral changes. While leaders who are sent to implicit bias training sessions leave with a heightened understanding that biases exist, they often lack the tools to take sustained corrective action. Absent of any concrete action items, leaders revert to the status quo.

When combined with other DEI efforts, coaching is a powerful and effective method that helps leaders and managers arrive at their own solutions instead of being told the steps they should take. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” With coaching, the leader — or any coachee — sets his or her own agenda and desired outcomes, and the professional coach ensures accountability every step of the way.

A coaching approach to inclusive leadership development frames the conversation differently than traditional training, because it is empowering and leader-focused. Leaders set their own individual goals around DEI and learn to build capacity instead of dependency when it comes to identifying their own solutions to common DEI and other workplace challenges. The awareness and desire to change is a powerful “Aha!” moment that occurs as the result of a coach’s active listening and probing questions.

Coaching Underrepresented Employees

The unique nature of coaching can also help elevate underrepresented employees, who often experience unique challenges in the workplace. Employees of color, women and LGBTQ employees can experience an “emotional tax” in the form of a heightened sense of guardedness against bias, in addition to managing everyday organizational stresses. Related to the emotional tax, underrepresented employees often face challenges related to trust, inclusion and job satisfaction that can have a negative effect on their emotional well-being. These issues also put them at risk for becoming disengaged or even deciding to leave the organization.

Coaching has proven to address and mitigate such challenges. Companies that strive for a high-performing coaching culture should also ensure that their roster of experienced coaches includes coaches who understand the unique challenges and experiences that underrepresented employees face. The coaching relationship allows employees to address these difficulties in a holistic fashion. Managers can also become aware of issues that have gone unaddressed from their perspective. It’s important to note that managers should allow employees to select their own coaches.

An Example in Practice

A woman of color is hired onto the senior leadership team. Let’s call her Tanisha. She is the “only one” on the team. Everyone is immediately enthused; the CEO has an opportunity to add a different perspective to the team, Tanisha’s colleagues are relieved to have the role filled, and Tanisha herself is ready to hit the ground running and make an impact. Over time, the situation might go like this:

Month 1: Everyone is still excited, including Tanisha.

Month 3: Tanisha experiences some unexpected demands. She also observes that she is not invited to several informal outings that her mostly male peers host each month. She is starting to see that she does not have access to the information she needs to be successful.

Month 6: While Tanisha has the leadership skills to succeed, she realizes that she is still lacking the informal access she needs to work successfully. She reaches out to the chief executive officer. He tells her that she has to navigate and build relationships on her own. He assures her that is what has worked for the rest of the team.

Month 12: After one year, Tanisha is looking for another job. While she liked what she was doing at her current company, she felt like she was on an island and was not included in the critical spaces she needed to be in to succeed. The CEO is both disappointed and confused. So he doesn’t have to risk another quick tenure, he goes back to hiring people in his network — people like him.

This scenario is all too common. No amount of diversity training, by itself, would have reversed Tanisha’s situation. However, an investment in both a team coach for the leadership team and an individual coach for Tanisha could have gone a long way. Instead of telling the leaders what to do, the coach would ask questions like these:

  • What are some actions you can take to elevate key team members that may not be on your immediate radar?
  • Knowing what you know about your own successes, what are a few critical steps you could take that will help Tanisha succeed in the first 90 days and beyond?
  • Which actions are you committing to?

These questions are simply examples. An experienced coach would not be limited to these questions and would ask appropriate follow-up questions. Each person would commit to his or her own actions, and the coach would facilitate accountability. Over time, these actions would trickle down throughout the organization to create a coaching culture defined by inclusion, curiosity and trust.

Coaching to Confront Bias

The traditional methods of diversity and inclusion training that companies invest in to cultivate leaders have proven to be a mixed bag. Leaders leave with awareness but not the skills to make changes. Pairing coaching programs with DEI programs will lead to more sustained results. Coaching, which high-performing organizations make available to managers and employees at all levels, can strengthen the muscles needed to create inclusive workplace cultures and boost engagement from all employees.