DEI training is all the rage, which is a welcome advancement for the many L&D professionals because our skills are in high demand as companies grapple with how to foster equity and inclusion. But is DEI learning and development really a thing? Or is this body of training akin to baby furniture, 90 percent of which is just regular furniture at twice the price because of the word baby on the label?
To start, let’s make an important distinction: DEI training often fails because its focus is narrow, and it is treated as a one-and-done learning event. DEI learning and development, on the other hand, understands that the path to an inclusive, equitable work environment is a journey that involves much more than just diversity and inclusion learning.
A mentor once told me that being good at creating an inclusive environment boils down to being able to apply good leadership even when the person to whom it is being applied is significantly different from you. But if it were that easy, every company would be inclusive. So, what stops us from building an inclusive workplace and what do we do about it? How do we create learning opportunities that help our people leaders move the needle from a DEI perspective? Here are a few tips and best practices to overcome some of the most common roadblocks.
Roadblock 1: Bias—Unconscious and ConsciousLearning opportunities abound that explain how our brains are wired to favor speed rather than accuracy, that this wiring manifests as bias, and that this bias can have very negative consequences. Additionally, because we are all a product of our upbringings, there is probably some bias we hold consciously that also negatively affects us.
Bias training is great, but a more comprehensive learning journey around bias is much more effective. Consider including learning focused on growing empathy and how to receive feedback. The former helps one identify with another’s lived experience, which is critical when we are considering how to become more aware of our biases. The latter allows one to accept feedback about how they have affected another intentionally or unintentionally.
Roadblock 2: FearNumerous studies have shown that fear is a much stronger motivator than reward. Building equity and inclusion at work still sends shivers down the spines of many managers. Fear of losing opportunities. Fear of losing one’s place within an in-group because you advocate for an out-group member. Fear of messing up and saying the wrong thing.
Looking at this strictly through a DEI lens, your mind goes directly to allyship training, which is the right response. Consider building a learning journey that includes content on building courage and having tough conversations. Present your people with opportunities to learn more about recovering from mistakes and how organizational change usually occurs after a series failures and successes.
Roadblock 3: TruthNinety percent of us don’t know what we don’t know. I’m sure you’re thinking, “It’s more like 100 percent!” And you’re right. But this fact doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to driving inclusion and equity in the workplace. In-group members simply don’t know the depth of the indignities (big and small) that have been directed at people from traditionally marginalized groups. So, when we are in our in-group and see injustice being done to an out-group member, it allows us to focus on the singular injustice, whereas for the out-group member, this is often the latest injustice in a pattern of injustices that have been perpetrated because of their out-group membership.
While sharing lessons on active listening and growing empathy are certainly good ways to help mitigate this impact, in-group members also need to be aware of and understand the pattern. And this is where traditional training methods fall short because companies don’t focus much on helping employees learn about different lived experiences. This is an opportunity for your DEI L&D program to be different. Start a book club or movie club that takes a deep dive into an out-group’s lived experience. Be intentional about forming a learning group for senior leaders that focuses on one result—helping those leaders to advance in their personal learning journeys.
So, yes, DEI training is real, but the key to unlocking its power to create an equitable and inclusive workplace is ensuring that it is part of a more holistic development journey that places old fashioned leadership development in the path of learners as well.