Why doesn’t diversity training work?

Professor André Keet from Nelson Mandela University recently attended a transformation workshop


I recently attended a transformation workshop, which was attended by all the heads of departments at Rhodes University and facilitated by transformation and social justice specialist, Professor André Keet from Nelson Mandela University

He was outstanding and it was encouraging to witness the absolute commitment from the participants to proactively pursue the achievement of a transformed, diverse institution.

At the end of the workshop, however, Prof. Keet threw a curve ball when he cautioned that research has shown that diversity training often doesn’t work and can have an opposite effect to what it is designed to achieve. One of the dangers is that participants learn how to speak the diversity lingo and effectively use this to undermine the process and disguise their motive, which is to retain the status quo. In effect, you are equipping them to talk the organisational strategy talk without walking the walk of deep, fundamental personal and organisational change.

He wasn’t trying to be negative, he was simply saying that as committed as we were at the workshop, for there to be a lasting impact, we have to deeply and continuously focus on the who, what, when, where, why and how of diversity and transformation to start to understand and live it.

It prompted me, as someone who also facilitates in this field, to set aside what I have learnt and look at it afresh because, despite the overt attention given to it, we continue to see highly publicised incidents where, inter alia, gender bias, sexism and racism have been the focus.

One of the South African incidents was the showdown in the SuperSport studio after Ashwin Willemse walked out of a live broadcast, accusing Nick Mallett and Naas Botha of patronising him. An international issue that attracted global coverage occurred in April this year, following the controversial arrest of two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia. They were arrested simply because they had asked to use the toilet and then sat in the store for several minutes without ordering anything. They said they were waiting for a meeting.

Nelson and Robinson have since reached a settlement with Starbucks for an undisclosed sum and Starbucks closed down its over 8 000 stores across the United States and many more globally for all their staff to undergo half a day of ‘racial bias training’. Many staff members reacted positively to this training and said they enjoyed the documentary they were shown about what people go through every day in their lives simply due to the colour of their skin.

But where to from here? The half-day training is laudable but it cannot end there, or it will simply be adding to the growing pile of examples of why diversity training does not work. An article titled Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? in Forbes Magazine written by Victor Lipman, Management Coach and the Head of Howling Wolf Management Training, explains that most diversity training initiatives fail because they come across as “a none-too-thoughtful exercise in political correctness, rather than the valuable business education programmes they should be”.

He offers the example of quick, online, diversity courses where you zip through the questions, are done in half an hour and can get back to work. He has done these and several other diversity courses over the years and explains that it too often feels “like we were simply checking a box in some sort of large HR curriculum. ‘Well, that’s done—excellent, now we’ve fulfilled our legal obligation for another year!’”

In Harvard Business Review’s Spotlight on Building a Diverse Organisation, organisational sociology professors Frank Dobbin (Harvard University) and Alexandra Kalev (Tel Aviv University) ask this question of diversity and transformation training: “Do people who undergo training usually shed their biases?” They explain that “researchers have been examining this question since before World War II, in nearly a thousand studies. It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a question about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of mid-size companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500”.

In a January 2018 article in Time magazine titled How Diversity Training Infuriates Men and Fails Women, contributor, Joanne Lipman, referring to Dobbin and Kalev’s research, says the training can also infuriate the people it’s intended to educate: white men. “Many interpreted the key learning point as having to walk on eggshells around women and minorities—choosing words carefully so as not to offend.” White men felt angered at being portrayed as the villains and as a consequence, may lose their jobs.

It’s extremely complex, as not only do people from different groups often feel threatened by each other in a variety of ways, they often experience profound cognitive dissonance—a condition proposed by American Social Psychologist, Leon Festinger, in 1957 to describe the mental discomfort people experience when challenged by other beliefs, ideas or values. People’s responses include distress, anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, frustration, fear and anger.

The concept of cognitive dissonance was explored from a diversity and transformation perspective by Global South Psychiatrist, Philosopher and Writer, Frantz Fanon: “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Prof. Keet explains that these and many other issues concerning diversity and transformation have not been adequately researched because they are not disciplines or professions, and people are, therefore, not specifically researching or training in the field: “In South Africa, diversity and transformation officers could have studied any number of fields. What we need is a disciplinary base for diversity and transformation to give them a scholarly, scientific base as a specific career field. This enables us to pose intellectual questions from a knowledge base that studies the history and background of institutional and social cultures that generate racialised outcomes. It is only through the depth of understanding diversity and transformation that they can become both strategy and outcome, not just the former,” he says.

The establishment of a new Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) at Nelson Mandela University, headed by Prof. Keet, will no doubt reflect new light on this. At the Rhodes transformation workshop, I proposed a similar approach to Prof. Keet. As in many institutions and companies, the transformation and diversity objectives have been stated many times over but we need to put them in a format that is actionable. To achieve this, we need to put mentoring and measures in place to determine whether or not we are achieving the outcomes. And if not, why not? I am part of this living process and at the same time, I facilitate diversity and transformation training (albeit as imperfectly as I think I sometimes do). Jumping between the two gives one a very uncomfortable yet important sense of perspective.

What I have learnt is that authentic leadership is all-important, as Victor Lipman explains: “If employees feel management is just checking a diversity box, employees will go through the motions as if they too are just checking a box. But if they feel management is actually providing a thoughtful, authentic experience, an organisation will have a much better chance of making diversity feel like the critical business issue it surely is.”

What I have also learnt is that transformation and diversity workshops are needed more than ever, but they need to be led by highly respected facilitators and thought leaders who come with the depth of experience required to expose people to new ways of being in the world, and who can mentor them on this journey.

Rule one is that we have to be prepared to shed our preconceived ideas if we are to be constructive players in the process. We need to consciously open ourselves to different perspectives, with all the surprises and frustrations that come with this.

It can be a tremendously liberating experience to have a positive, open mindset and to make sure that transformation and diversity become works in progress in our lives, at work and at home.

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