Stop Diversity Training and Start Difference Training

July 20th, 2010

I recently had conversations with senior executives at two of my client companies who said to me (I paraphrase): “I’m glad you are here. I’m tired of all of the diversity training we’ve been doing over the year. I want to get going with something that will really make a difference for us.” One executive even banned all diversity training from his firm!

Executives like these have good cause to be frustrated about diversity training. It is the most ubiquitous diversity-related activity in most companies. If anyone wants to do anything with diversity, get a consultant to come in and train your people. This diversity training remedy reminds me of the man looking for his car keys on a well-lit street corner one night. He was searching for quite a while when a friend who had been strolling the neighborhood that evening walked up to him:
“What are doing?” she asked.
“I’m looking for my car keys,” the man responded with more than a hint of dejection in his tone.
“Let me help you,” she said.
“Oh, no thanks, that’s OK,” he said.
“It’s no problem, I’m really happy to help.” She wanted to boost her friend’s spirits if she could.
“No, really, I don’t want to put you out. Besides, I know the keys aren’t here. I’m pretty sure I lost them farther down the street.”
Now she was puzzled and asked the obvious question, “If the keys aren’t here, then why are you looking for them here?”
“It’s the only place on the street where there was a street light.”

So many companies offer diversity training because it’s found on well-lit corners. There is no end to the supply of consultants willing to offer up training, and if you are all about checking the boxes on your diversity to-do list, what easier way to quantify your efforts than to document the number of employees who took a diversity training class? But what difference does diversity training really make?

Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly addressed just that question in the research they conducted on federal data that tracked workforces of 708 private sector businesses from 1971 to 2002.[1] Companies that tried to drop in diversity training as a way to diminish managers’ biases were least effective in increasing the numbers of white women, and black men and women in the company. The most effective way to make a difference was to have systems of accountability for creating diversity change. In a new study that will be presented at this summer’s 2010 Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Montreal, researchers found that companies enhance their competitiveness when they infuse diversity training into managerial ranks that currently lack cultural diversity; if the company already has a lot of cultural diversity among its managerial ranks, diversity training doesn’t make the company that much more competitive.[2]

To try to help my executive clients get out of their funk about diversity training, I asked them to think about their goals. If they wanted to increase the diversity of the kinds of people they wanted in their company, the research tells us that it is important that diversity training not simply be an activity that you undertake to check a box; it must be embedded within a larger effort to change the culture and systems of the company. But this is just the pre-work, getting people onto the playing field.

The larger, more important goal is to turn the differences in the company into results (getting the players on the field to perform as a team!)
Learning how to leverage the difference in the company is where the real action is. And the differences aren’t just the ones that might come in by way of response to the first goal of increasing representation of women and people of color. There are lots of valuable differences already in every company I’ve ever worked with. Difference-Training should focus on helping employees build a set of skills they need to turn differences into performance. They have to learn to:

See Difference, to identify the differences (and there can be many more than just race or gender) that matter in achieving your strategic goals;
Understand Difference, to learn how the differences they identify affect how people do work in company;
Engage Difference, to experiment with how differences can be used to create results. Some the experiments will fail—that’s the nature of an experiment. But in the process you learn.

Training on these three difference competencies helps your company create the ability to leverage difference, no matter what differences are in play.

Ongoing learning about difference will always make your organization more able to take advantage of the distinctiveness that people bring to work. Learning about difference is non-negotiable so you can’t just ban it. The challenge and opportunity is to make sure your Difference-Training helps you achieve your organization’s goals.

[1] “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies.” By Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, & Erin Kelly. Published in the American Sociological Review, 2006. Volume 71, pp. 589-617.

[2] “Racial Diversity, Competitive Aggressiveness and Firm Performance: A Moderated Mediation Model” by Goce Andrevski, Orlando C. Richard, Walter J. Ferrier, and Jason D. Shaw, to be presented at the Annual Academy of Management Meetings, Montreal, Quebec, Canada in August 2010.

One Response to “Stop Diversity Training and Start Difference Training”

  1. Dirk Ruiz says:

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for a very interesting post! I think that the approach of leveraging difference is a solution to a bit of gridlock that the corporate world has gotten itself into. Namely, diversity efforts (usually) focus on increasing the representation and participation of members of protected categories. BUT, at the very same time, workplace harassment training emphasizes how easy it can be to cause offense when talking to/about members of those same protected categories. The two very well-intentioned efforts leave people feeling paralyzed. They may feel exhorted to leverage diversity, but then be afraid of the consequences if they should “slip up”. The natural response is to just keep quiet about it all, which is too bad. It squelches meaningful interaction between people, and hinders the chance to learn about others. (For instance, people are often curious about my Jewish commitment, but would have been afraid to bring it up if I hadn’t mentioned it in a friendly, relaxed way.)

    The concept of leveraging difference may help break the gridlock. If your difference as a member of a protected category is just another element in a wide assortment of differences, it’s less threatening to talk about (for both you and for others, I think). A single-minded focus on my Jewishness would be uncomfortable… but not if it’s just the particular way in which I happen to be unique. Maybe she’s a star athlete, or he’s an expert in black history, or she competes in robotics competitions, or he’s a native Japanese speaker. Suddenly, my difference – even if it’s part of a protected category – is just another difference. It’s not such a big deal. We’ve all got something that makes us truly different. Now, we can get down the business of figuring out how to leverage those differences for our common good.

    Hope all is well with you and your family,


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