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Don't Be the Next Headline: How to Implement Diversity Training the Right Way

Employ a strengths-based approach to diversity to improve your company as a whole.
Don't Be the Next Headline: How to Implement Diversity Training the Right Way
Image credit: PhotoAlto | Eric Audras | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder and CEO, Neurobusiness Group
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Learning to effectively interact with people who may be different (ethnically, culturally, etc.) from you and your team members is essential for any startup.

This concept isn't particularly new, but the risks of approaching diversity training the wrong way are especially clear today.

In April, Starbucks was in the spotlight after two African American men were arrested inside one of its Philadelphia stores. A Starbucks employee called the police on the men after they were told they couldn't use the restroom without purchasing an item (they were waiting for a third before doing that).

The incident became a video on Twitter that has since accumulated more than 11 million views. A storm of reaction followed, in which both the employee and the corporation were called out for racial discrimination and profiling.

After issuing an apology, Starbucks announced an "anti-bias" initiative. The first action took place the afternoon of May 29, when the coffee chain shut down more than 8,000 U.S. locations to focus on anti-discrimination training. The gesture was nice enough but unlikely to make a true difference: Implicit bias runs deep, and a handful of hours devoted to training hardly scratches the surface of the issue.

Related: Achieving Diversity Demands Less Talk and More Action. And Good Intentions Alone Won’t Do It.

Defensiveness instead of diversity

In a Time magazine opinion piece, Joanne Lipman --  former chief content officer of Gannett and former editor-in-chief of USA Today -- explained that men often leave diversity training infuriated, and defensive white women and minorities find themselves in worse positions than before.

That statement echoes a 2016 study by Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Alexandra Kalev, professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University. In the study, the researchers tracked the hiring and promotion practices of 830 companies over the course of 30 years.

They found that when managers are forced to go through diversity training, they hire fewer women and minorities. This outcome most likely occurs because the action of trying to be unbiased can actually result in unintended prejudice.

Under stress, our brains are wired to do the opposite of what we want them to do. When people are prejudiced, this physical reaction often reflects an underlying anxiety about the "other" group and increases amygdala activity in the brain.

This activity occurs because the amygdala processes anxiety and fear, and unfamiliar people and events activate this brain region, which often leads to some form of prejudice as a defense.

Related: 6 Simple Actions Startups Can Take to Foster Diversity

Look to the brain for more effective diversity training.

Emotional approaches to diversity training are likely less effective than psychological and brain-science perspectives. With that in mind, here are several concrete steps to improve your company's diversity training:

1. Avoid shaming, bullying and threats. As a leader, emphasize the opportunity to learn and grow in diversity. Many diversity program leaders implicitly reprimand aggressors or attempt to shame them into feeling sympathy for minority groups. This will likely only make them more aggressive.

When people are threatened, they become more implicitly biased, and that can deter any diversity-training goals. For example, I recently spoke to an employee who said that she'd received so much diversity training that she now resented people of color. This is obviously the worst-case scenario for inclusivity, but it's a good example of how our brains can turn information into prejudice and prejudice into threats.

Combat this outcome by eliminating threatening language and rules in your diversity training. For example, "no tolerance” approaches should be avoided or reworded. After all, the goal of diversity training is to inspire people to respect and cherish a new norm, not be threatened into compliance.

2. Lean on unconscious bias training. One way to avoid shaming is to focus on unconscious bias training. Brian Welle, director of people analytics at Google, implemented this type of training by introducing employees to the fact that we are all biased -- period.

Consequently, there is an expectation that the brain will always come up with ways to categorize people and form stereotypes. However, with awareness, consciousness and support, you can help employees recognize their biases.

These trainings are popular because, given their basis in neurology, they take some of the pressure and blame off the employees in the room. They also put people in a forward-thinking mindset that allows them to feel more in control of their reactions to others. Knowing this is, of course, is not enough. You must be prepared to examine and act on any poor outcomes, as well.

So, first, educate people that bias is unconscious. Then, when working with a team, tell each member that even though bias is unconscious, everyone is responsible to point it out when it occurs. This will create a culture of tolerance and change rather than one of accusation and fear.

3. Don't obsess about "diversity." People who experience workplace prejudice don't usually look for emotional handouts. Whether you are a woman, person of color, immigrant, introvert or all of the above, you want people to give you a real chance rather than feel sorry for you or be irrationally afraid of you.

Rycroft-Malone study found that collaboration works best if it is authentic and flexible and if there is identity diffusion rather than an emphasis on identity. To put it simply, overemphasizing diversity in the workplace doesn't foster better teamwork or acceptance.

When designing diversity training programs, ask yourself whether your perspectives on generosity and focus on pointing out the diverse people in your company are strategic or natural.

Overdoing this kind of recognition is an easy trap to fall into, but you're not doing employees any favors. Tone down any efforts that point out that someone is different, and instead make sure to empower people for their strengths and values. Emphasize how different perspectives can make your team or company stronger -- don't focus on categories.

4. Take a developmental and exploratory approach to diversity. When designing programs on diversity, be able to understand and explain the brain's instinctual responses to members of groups as well as to personal threats.

One reason diversity programs fail is that they take a politically correct stance rather than examine the specifics associated with them. If someone has a view that's different from yours, listen to him or her and talk about it rather than immediately resort to judgment. Try to understand this person's perspective, and then talk about how you could achieve your shared objectives despite these differences.

In 2017, organizational behavior professor Diether Gebert described one reason tolerance may be a neglected dimension in diversity training.

He explained why diversity training that emphasizes "equal opportunities" or "integrating minorities" doesn't work. His research found that individuals should be prone to acknowledging the more complex aspects of diversity rather than react to its absence; only then can real learning occur.

You can embrace this exploratory, developmental approach by being mindful of the tone and messages your company uses in internal communications. When sending out memos, don't rely on stock phrases that utilize "all or nothing" policies.

Instead, emphasize growing together, trying to understand different points of view and setting up meetings to explore diverse perspectives. And always acknowledge that some biases can't change, but you can still learn to work together.

Related: Why It’s Still So Difficult to Hire a Diverse Team

Unleashing shame, guilt, rage and intolerance within your diversity training will only help your company continue to lose ground. Rather, seek to emphasize the opportunity, tolerance, true generosity and pride inherent in the varying perspectives, viewpoints and people on your team. By doing so, you will extend a strengths-based approach to better your company's inclusion as a whole.

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