“Blaming and Shaming” Doesn’t Work. This Approach to DEI Does.

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

This is the third in a series of insights adapted from the upcoming book “Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact,” co-authored by Dr. Ernest Gundling and Dr. Cheryl Williams. To order the book, please visit Amazon.

More and more companies around the globe are choosing to address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion head-on with their leaders and employees — and that’s a very good thing. These are key aspects of workplace engagement that have been ignored by society and business for far too long.

However, the problem for many organizations comes in the execution of those programs, either through in-house or outsourced facilitators. Far too many approaches to DEI actually alienate participants and even create backlash rather than supporting meaningful conversations and mutual learning. In such cases, DEI training and programs can be — at best — useless, and at worst, actually counterproductive and harmful to the organization as a whole and leaders as individuals. (1)

Blaming and Shaming

Training methods that involve “blaming and shaming” usually start with the positive intention of addressing past wrongs and creating a more equitable working environment. And employees who have benefitted from some type of privilege in the past — based on skin color, socioeconomic background, education, nationality, etc. — are often ready and willing to acknowledge their privilege and address equity issues caused by racism and other forms of discrimination.

However, when trainers pressure participants to respond in a certain way to acknowledge and make amends for their privileges, they may easily engender backlash and resistance. Individuals willing to address others’ unearned disadvantages could respond quite differently (and negatively) to the suggestion that they have come to enjoy their current roles based on unearned advantages. Few people who have been in their jobs for several years or more, especially if they have begun to take on leadership roles, feel that their positions are unearned. “I have worked hard to get where I am,” most would insist. 

Powerful terms such as “oppressor” or “racist,” or a tendency to voice hasty judgments of others based on their physical appearance or word choices, can add fuel to the fire when they are perceived as accusations. Ironically, programs intended to foster greater inclusion sometimes make participants feel ostracized and criticized based on their appearance, gender, age, or lack of knowledge regarding current I&D concepts or vocabulary. Words such as intersectionality, BIPOC, or Latinx, and personal pronouns such as they/theirs reflecting gender identity or sexual orientation can be a source of bewilderment in the absence of careful explanation, particularly for non-native language speakers. 

Poor facilitation techniques tend to backfire through overt or covert forms of resistance and heightened negative feelings all around, leaving marginalized groups feeling more isolated while alienating potential allies. In a worst-case scenario, a misplaced focus on “differences that divide” creates a shared climate of hypersensitivity and victimization that drives people apart and increases the risk of costly legal wrangling.

DEI Training: What DOES Work 

Instead of reactions like, “Oh no, not another diversity training program! I wonder who messed up this time,” it is possible to create a completely different atmosphere of mutual respect and shared learning. Here are a few guiding principles:

Everyone is Welcome

This is training on inclusion, after all, so the only criterion for joining should be a willingness to participate and to learn. It is better to have volunteers than people who are forced to attend, or at minimum, everyone present should feel that they have choices about how they would like to contribute.

We All Have Biases

Part of being human is that we tend to see what we expect to see (Confirmation Bias), regard others as insiders or outsiders (Insider Bias), rationalize the mistakes of ourselves or our friends while judging others more harshly (Attribution Bias), and be systematically overconfident about our judgments (Overconfidence Bias). The key point is not who is biased and who is not, but rather how all of us can overcome biases to work more effectively together. Read more about this on our blog about “The 4 Types of Bias Leaders Need to Watch Out For.”

Psychological Safety

It can feel scary and socially hazardous to voice your own thoughts about sensitive topics, and it is common for people to take a cautious approach or just say as little as possible. (“What if the other participants judge me negatively for what I say?”) Skilled facilitators create an environment where each person has a chance to get into the conversation, participants are encouraged to listen and suspend judgment, risk-taking is supported, mutual learning is encouraged, and it is acceptable to challenge the status quo. (2)

Prejudice Reduction

People who don’t know each other well often resort to stereotypes rather than real-time observations or relationships. Bringing people together and helping them get to know each other as individuals is a good place to start. This serves to lower intergroup barriers; there may even be unexpected similarities between participants who look very different from each other. Better teamwork is also supported by establishing or confirming common goals and building systems (e.g., aligned metrics) that support collaboration.

Experiential Learning

Some facilitators swear by exercises such as a “privilege walk,” in which participants are asked to step forward or backward based on a series of questions about race, gender, education, sexual orientation, and other aspects of their life experience. Although such an experience may have a deep impact on participants, if the facilitator is inexperienced and participants are relatively introverted or less direct in their communication style, those who wind up being singled out for attention (either for being “privileged” or being “marginalized”) may feel humiliated or offended. (3)

A more effective experiential technique is to invite individuals, after careful preparation, to narrate aspects of their own life experience that provide examples of exclusion or inclusion. Personal stories generally evoke greater empathy and a willingness to reciprocate than exercises based on broad categories that put people on the spot.

Awareness to Action

The hard work of inclusion occurs through building new daily habits, and any learning program needs to kickstart and reinforce this positive habit-forming process. It is one thing to learn about “micro-inequities,” for example, but another to start practicing “micro-affirmations.” Awareness of common biases is useful, but such knowledge must be applied to areas such as helping teams tap all members’ talents, avoid “groupthink,” and create a wider “in-group” that contributes to effective business decisions. It is important for each person to know, “Where am I in my learning journey, and what next steps am I willing to take?” (Our Inclusive Behaviors Inventory is a great place to start, for example).

Examples of concrete next steps could be reaching out to support a new employee, running more inclusive meetings, coaching a subordinate from a different background, or expanding one’s circle of go-to people to make better-informed judgments. Building such habits may involve a learning event or training program, but this needs to be part of a larger learning journey that incorporates regular opportunities for ongoing skill-building.

The Crucible Experience

Beyond training methods, there is another way for prospective leaders to learn first-hand the pain of exclusion and the value of inclusivity. Many cultural myths and heroes have a similar underlying theme: great leaders gain wisdom and courage by embarking on journeys, encountering obstacles, and facing down threats. Think of Moses, living through a lengthy exile in Egypt before leading his people back to the Promised Land (or, for those who prefer a pop culture reference, the Star Wars tale of Luke Skywalker).

Today’s leaders do not have to slay a dragon, trek through the desert, or even face down Darth Vader. However, they can often be transformed by a journey outside their traditional “comfort zone” and gain exposure to differences through so-called “crucible” experiences. These experiences bring leaders through intense and different experiences to spark new, creative approaches to their work. A development approach that gets people outside of their comfort zone through these experiences can secure long-lasting success.

“Crucible” experiences could include:

  • Tackling new roles outside of one’s functional area of expertise
  • Working in a new market
  • Running a new business
  • Leading the turnaround of an underperforming project
  • Managing a critical project on a fast cycle
  • Embarking on an international assignment (per research, one of the best ways to garner leadership and creativity skills)

An important thing to remember: life in the crucible will not be easy, pleasant, or contained. For many leaders, these types of experiences will give them a keen sense of what it is like to be seen as an outsider and force them to take long, hard looks at certain elements of their personality, work style, and other fundamental assumptions. They may even experience— gasp — failure for one of the first times in their professional career.

However, those that stick with these experiences and learn to adapt will be handsomely rewarded. Going through such trials can produce great insights, a more open mindset, and a visceral appreciation of what it feels like to move from exclusion to inclusion. Instead of the negative feelings and put-downs from a “blaming and shaming” approach, one based upon exploring those “differences that strengthen” through brand-new experiences delivers the positive, welcoming DEI approach that makes a difference.


  1. Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review, July 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/07/why-diversity-programs-fail
  2. See The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation by Timothy R. Clark, released March 3, 2020
  3. See, for example, one facilitator’s rationale for why she no longer uses privilege walks: “The memory of doing that privilege walk isn’t tied to a profound awakening or a call to action to use my privilege, it’s tied to shame. ‘I’m wrong for this, people are going to judge me for this, they are going to think that I’m bad.’”  https://medium.com/@MegB/why-i-dont-won-t-facilitate-privilege-walks-anymore-and-what-i-do-instead-380c95490e10

About the Authors

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D
Co-Founder and Managing Partner

Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest titled, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Ernie on LinkedIn

Dr. Cheryl Williams

Cheryl Williams, Ph.D., is a highly regarded and respected subject matter expert on Human Resource Development competencies. Her work aims to connect the global workforce in areas that reconcile the “diversity-inclusion-equity-belonging” equation, cultural intelligence, gender equity, inter-and intra-race
relations, intercultural communication behaviors, and leadership across multiple boundaries. She spent over thirty years in higher education, media/entertainment, and high technology industries dedicated to
these ideals.

Dr. Williams serves as a Professor Emeritus at Concordia University, Irvine, California (CUI). Cheryl has traveled to and worked in over eighty countries spanning Europe, Asia/South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa/Southern Africa, South America, and North America.

She launched her consulting practice, Communication Works, in 1997. She collaborates with multi-national, Fortune 500 companies, individuals, and non-profits to provide related training, development, coaching, and consulting in this role. She is often tapped to do compliance training on ‘Preventing
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ (California Version).

As an HRD and Inclusion/Equity/Diversity specialist, Cheryl has designed, developed, and delivered over 7000 learning programs to global audiences. As an author, she co-developed an Inclusive Behavior Profile, an exceedingly popular and sound psychometric assessment tool. She co-authored Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Cheryl on LinkedIn