Six Ways to Transform Your Diversity and Inclusion Program to Actually Change Behavior

Gloria Tam, Poornima Luthra & Jade Vaillancourt
March 8, 2021

For many organizations, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training has become a necessity within their overall talent strategy. However, research has shown that organizational diversity training could backfire, particularly when it relies solely on unconscious bias training. There is growing evidence that many unconscious bias training programs often do not lead to meaningful changes in behavior. The very recent incident of a global company asking employees to attend a DEI training that teaches them “to be less white” (i.e., the classic fallacy of “fighting bias with bias”) is one example of why organizations are failing in their DEI mission, underscoring the critical need for leaders to re-examine their DEI learning initiatives.

One potential root cause is how organizations conceive and orchestrate such training. In many occasions, organizational DEI learning initiatives have been reduced to some form of self-paced unconscious bias training, or a half-day workshop on anti-discrimination, without much intentional design and consideration of outcome metrics. While the intentions behind such programs may be noble, the approach has often led to less than desirable outcomes. In many cases, unconscious bias training serves as a “check-the-box” item which perpetuates stereotypes that organizations are trying to fix in the first place. As a result, the UK government has even gone as far as “scrapping” unconscious bias training for its civil servants.

Is Unconscious Bias the Answer or Just Hype?

With all the buzz and backlash that unconscious bias training has received, it is important to recognize that “unconscious” biases, or implicit biases, in a more academic term, are an important part of our cognition. Implicit biases are mental constructs that are inherent in everyone’s information processing and decision-making pathways. The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our goals, motivations, or even declared beliefs. Biases are often intuitive and are dictated by heuristics (mental shortcuts) that our brains developed in our evolutionary past. For example, falling in line with the leader of our tribe was crucial for survival - however, in modern times, if everyone in a business meeting overlooks innovative perspectives to favor the senior leader’s ideas, we will miss opportunities for diverse thinking and potentially better outcomes. This common situation is a result of conformity bias or “groupthink” - our tendency to be swayed by other people, particularly by the most senior person in the room or the perceived majority.

The good news is that implicit biases are malleable. As incredibly complex and intricate the human brain may be, we can reshape our information processing mechanisms. Implicit associations can be unlearned via bias mitigation strategies and frameworks. Poorly-designed unconscious bias training may have tarnished DEI’s reputation, but there are ways for organizations to conduct effective DEI training that includes unlearning biases as a first step towards creating more inclusive workplaces.

Developing a Sustainable DEI Training Strategy

There is no quick fix to building awareness of our biases in a way that changes our behavior.  A one-day workshop or a thirty-minute self-paced training is not going to do the trick. It takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. Given how long it takes to change behavior and that we’ve been developing biases since we were born, it will inevitably take us time to unlearn them.

Below are six approaches that ensure DEI training results in real behavioral changes:

1) Develop a holistic approach that goes beyond stereotypical categories of diversity

Gender and ethnicity biases are usually the focus of most DEI training programs. Although those biases certainly contribute to diversity and inclusion issues, it is important to remember that biases emerge from many aspects of diversity. Demographic diversity categories, such as gender, age, ethnicity, mental and physical ability, are straightforward to measure but are not the only way to think about diversity. Experiential diversity (built upon life experiences such as education, religion, and one’s upbringing) and cognitive diversity (different ways of thinking and learning) are often overlooked but could create a lot more nuanced and problematic discrimination scenarios in the workplace.

2) Perform a robust diversity and inclusion audit

Once an organization defines which types of diversity it wants to focus on, it can survey employees and use demographic data to evaluate its current level of diversity. Evaluating inclusivity is trickier. To understand its level of inclusivity, an organization needs to assemble data from talent only when they feel safe to be candid. Anonymous surveys, third-party audits, and exit interviews serve this purpose. These data help unveil conscious and unconscious biases that exist in a given organization and quantifies their impact on talent and culture.

With insights from this type of audit, an organization can set inclusion goals and design a learning strategy. To generate goals, organizations can ask themselves questions like: What employee attitudes need to shift? How can we reduce aggressive behaviors towards certain groups? How do we ensure behavioral changes stick?

3) Use multiple learning techniques and interventions

Building awareness of our biases requires us first to become aware of them. Consider different types of activities to suit different types of personalities and learning styles. For some, awareness might be best gained through the review of existing data and research. Others learn best when engaging in simulation exercises or role-play. And yet, for others, honest and open discussions with colleagues might prove most effective in becoming aware of biases. An effective DEI training should leverage multiple tools and strategies to help maximize awareness for all trainees.

4) Leverage ongoing, spaced learning

Science has demonstrated that spaced training is more effective, as ongoing and scaffolded learning helps reinforce memory, facilitate retrieval, and maximize retention. Engaging trainees over time also lets them apply their learning to their working lives. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve tells us that we forget most of what we learn the first time we learn it. A one-time DEI training does not alter behavior in ways needed for long-term change. DEI training should be ongoing and prompt trainees to regularly reflect on how the training applies in their day-to-day. Organizations should also rigorously test the effects of the training by measuring trainees’ progress, assessing behavioral changes, and evaluating organizational culture.

5) Foster a psychologically safe environment

Psychological safety (Edmondson, A.C. & Lei, Z, 2014), or one’s comfort in taking interpersonal risks, is one of the most important success factors in DEI training. Facilitators should be skilled at creating a psychologically safe space - for both the majority and minority group trainees - where trainees are comfortable being vulnerable. Participants should be able to engage in open and honest conversations about uncomfortable issues that go beyond theoretical knowledge about bias.

6) Address Microaggressions

Microaggressions are subtle negative interactions - verbal comments, actions, body language, or tones - that are directed towards members of a marginalized group and can be unconscious or intentional, deriving from prejudice, unjustified assumptions, or lack of consideration. They can be mistaken for a casual comment or even be brushed aside as humor. If you are wondering what microaggressions could look like, there are multiple examples you may have encountered or observed: “Oh, you’re [insert ethnicity] - you don’t even have an accent!?”; “But where are you actually from?”; “You’re probably too old to understand how this works.” Subtle behaviors such as men selectively interrupt women during conversations (also known as “manterrupting”) are also common in non-inclusive workplaces. When experienced repeatedly and frequently, microaggressions offend and make people feel undervalued and unappreciated. Effective DEI training should raise awareness of both the unconscious and conscious mindsets that lead to such behaviors, help both majority and minority groups understand their peers’ microaggressions, and identify strategies and techniques to combat them.  

Achieving DEI: A Marathon Not a Sprint

Working towards creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces has always been considered important, yet this has not been reflected in organizations’ goals or even training initiatives. With increasing research proving how diverse and inclusive organizations outperform financially, it’s been easier to move DEI training up organizations’ priority ladder. What is important is that organizations work towards keeping it at the top of the ladder permanently instead of taking shortcuts like one-time DEI workshops or strategic public statements.

The difference between an organization that will realize the great benefits of embracing diversity and inclusion, and one that won’t, is commitment to long-term holistic training, as described earlier. For sustainable change and growth, organizations should treat DEI like any other core business goal with clearly defined and measurable objectives everyone should contribute to.


To learn more about how Minerva Project designs and delivers training around DEI, complex systems and decision-making, contact Gloria Tam.

Gloria Tam is the Managing Director of Professional Learning Innovation at Minerva Project. Poornima Luthra is an External Lecturer for Copenhagen Business School and the Founder of TalentED Consultancy ApS. Jade Vaillancourt is the Program Success Lead of Professional Learning at Minerva Project.

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