Diversity Training: Engaging Reluctant Managers

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion, Global Leadership

Imagine a scene where managers arrive for a company-mandated diversity training session. Participants shuffle into the room at the last minute. Many have their eyes downcast. Few sit in the front near the instructor. You can almost hear the silent voices in the room expressing either dread or cautious anticipation.

“I’m going to have to listen to all the ways I’ve held others back when I’m actually getting a lot of the work done around here.”

— Diversity Training Participant

“These people don’t understand how excluded I feel every day. Maybe the instructor will be able to get them to open up to others who aren’t a part of the ‘in’ club.

— Diversity Training Participant

Sound familiar? Despite this unpromising start, it is possible to create a more positive learning environment that produces practical results.

Here are several recommendations for how to bring even reluctant participants along on this journey.

Accusation to Invitation

Skilled facilitators now recognize that methods of blaming and shaming—generally focused on white male participants—are unlikely to produce helpful outcomes or a more open workplace environment.

Thankfully, there are other learning strategies that invite rather than accuse, offering the possibilities for insight, humor, and real behavioral change. 

Describing unconscious bias, for example, as a common feature of all human beings helps to unify the group instead of dividing it. Unconscious bias leads our brains to take mental shortcuts to perceive and respond to danger, to cut through potentially overwhelming amounts of information and to serve our needs for social acceptance and self-esteem.

Here are a few quirky biases that we can all relate to:

  • Bias blind spot: When we see everyone as more biased than we are, and notice other people’s blind spots more readily than our own.
  • The IKEA effect: When we overestimate the value of something we have assembled ourselves.
  • Reactive devaluation: When we devalue proposals from rivals or from others we don’t like.
  • Illusory superiority: When we underestimate our flaws and overestimate our positive qualities in comparison with others.
  • Bizarreness bias: When we find it easier to recall events or material that are bizarre rather than commonplace, whether or not they are true (consider supermarket tabloids and social media!).

When bias is seen as a common human heritage, with evolutionary value for avoiding danger as well as inherent limitations in a complex world, it becomes possible to share mutual learnings based on a straightforward three-part format. The examples participants provide can be heartwarming and revelatory for others:

  • What I assumed
  • What I experienced
  • What I learned

One of the most basic categories of unconscious bias is confirmation bias: the tendency to see what we expect to see. This also means that we can fail to perceive facts or events that we weren’t expecting.

A famous study that illustrates this concept features a gorilla-suited character that comes on stage and beats its chest in the midst of a busy setting and is completely missed by half of the audience because they are focused on something else.

Imagine all of us as miners in the dark, with lights on our helmets that only shine in the direction that they are pointed. The rest of our surroundings remain in unexamined darkness. To have a fuller picture of our surroundings, we have to deliberately turn our heads and inquire what others are seeing in the light cast by their own headlamps.

Everybody is bound to be missing something. There is a tendency to focus extra attention on what is within the light from your own lamp. Engineers gravitate towards problems to solve, younger workers might be more keenly aware of generational differences, and diversity trainers are quick to identify possible biases. The only way to grasp the full picture is to listen to each other.

Plus, with long lists of more than 150 types of biases, there are plenty of cognitive glitches to go around for everyone, including program leaders!

Once this sort of universal premise is established, it is possible to set the tone for a mutual learning environment that not only informs but serves as a catalyst for personal transformation and organizational change.

Focusing on the Do’s Instead of Don’ts

Research from Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn organization indicates that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, male managers are now measurably more reluctant than before to engage in one-on-one meetings, dinners, or travel with female colleagues. For example, “60% of male managers are afraid to have a one-on-one meeting with a female employee.” 

The unintended outcome cited by Sandberg is clearly not in the interest of women who want to receive feedback and mentoring, or men who may be avoiding vital aspects of their management role. A similar reluctance to engage with others who are different when the stakes are high is likely to be true of other interactions between majority and minority employees. 

Managers who experience diversity or harassment training often emerge far clearer about what is not okay than about best practices and how to implement them.  To counter scary media accounts and attention-grabbing headlines, it is important to persist with the less spectacular but ultimately more significant task of helping them to understand what they can and should be doing in order to better work with each team member. 

Managers running diverse teams will need to learn how to run meetings, delegate, provide feedback, and make decisions with team members from various backgrounds, whether they are co-located or remote. Active inquiry becomes the foundation for more informed workplace relationships and is the manager’s doorway to insight, empathy, and improved performance.

One easy takeaway to provide participants with is the acronym, “RECIPE,” which will help managers remember questions that are advisable to ask staff members:

  • Requests: What requests do you have of me as a manager? How can I best support you?
  • Experience: What should I know about your prior work experience and strengths?
  • Challenges: What challenges or concerns do you currently have about your current role?
  • Interests: Are there particular areas that you would like to learn more about? 
  • Plans: What are your career plans or aspirations for the future?
  • Engagement: What kind of work do you find most exciting? What do you like most about your current role and what would you like to do more or less of if we can arrange it? 

As simple as such devices might be, they help to shift the atmosphere from avoidance to action. As one initially reluctant training participant later noted,

“Now I have a better sense of what it’s okay to ask my team members. There are a couple of difficult conversations I’ve been avoiding with newer employees because I still don’t feel that I know them well enough…”

— Diversity Training Participant

Employees who feel that their managers know them and care about them are more likely to speak up and become engaged team contributors. It also becomes easier for both managers and employees to give and receive tough feedback and to have courageous conversations when needed.

One-Dimensional to Multi-Dimensional

So long as inclusion challenges are portrayed as one-dimensional—men versus women, whites versus people of color, native-born versus immigrants, residents of one country versus another—it is difficult to establish common ground, and the common sentiment all around is, “You don’t get it! You will never understand me!” 

Expressions such as “unearned privilege” and labels such as “pale, male, and stale” reinforce such binary oppositions and tend to inflame and divide. 

Real people are more complex than simple one-dimensional comparisons, and this complexity, fortunately, offers numerous opportunities for bridge-building and better understanding. 

It is often easier to find common ground with a colleague who comes from a different background but shares a broader picture of their experience and life. For example, a white male engineer with two daughters at home, including a neurodiverse child adopted from China, might suddenly look different to colleagues once they know about his home life. 

Each of us has a life story, and the more these stories are exchanged, the greater the potential for positive connections. 

There are often unexpected similarities or points of common ground. People who are visibly quite different might find that they were trained in a similar specialty, grew up in neighboring communities, share a passion for the same sport, listen to the same music, or are fellow introverts. 

While many program participants are likely to resent references to their unearned privileges—it is quite natural for most people to want to address unearned disadvantages that others are facing when these become evident. We often hear statements like “I had no idea that this person…”

  • “…was first in their family to go to college.”
  • “…still has a mountain of student loans.”
  • “… grew up in a small village in India.”
  • “…is a single parent.”
  • “…is taking care of an elderly family member.”
  • “…struggles as a non-native language speaker.” 

Such multi-dimensional narratives enable participants to get to know each other as fellow human beings, beyond simple categories and labels. A mutually supportive workplace community becomes a real possibility, and shared principles such as fairness and equity may come closer to being realized. 

As relationships deepen, the impact on workplace teamwork is also tangible: less friction, closer cooperation, and greater mutual accountability and commitment, with appreciation and even admiration for teammates. 

Instead of the tedium of a closed loop of assumptions and accusations, training of this kind creates team-based learning opportunities that are suddenly open-ended and transformative, enabling all to grow and learn in the service of common goals.

As relationships deepen, the impact on workplace teamwork is also tangible: less friction, closer cooperation, and greater mutual accountability and commitment, with appreciation and even admiration for teammates. 

Instead of the tedium of a closed loop of assumptions and accusations, training of this kind creates team-based learning opportunities that are suddenly open-ended and transformative, enabling all to grow and learn in the service of common goals.

About the Author

Dr. Ernest Gundling

Dr. Ernest Gundling assists clients in developing inclusive global leaders and organizations. He has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He is the author of six books, including, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Dr. Gundling has lived and traveled extensively in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan and a year in Germany. He holds a Ph.D. and  MA from the University of Chicago, and a BA from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

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