Diversity training is nothing new. I’ve been a practitioner for over twenty-five years, and DEI predates my career by four decades, maybe even more. Yet there is something Sisyphean about teaching diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, isn’t there? We end up back at the basics over and over again. DEI teachers rarely have a chance to leave Ground Zero or get past Groundhog Day.
DEI is all about progress, but we’re not progressing. Ironic, isn’t it?
In many ways, healthier, inclusive workplaces seem more distant than ever. Because those decades of training are not being applied. We’re remembering but we’re not learning. So it’s the same, introductory class, year after year, decade after decade. Meanwhile, our world becomes more divisive and therefore less receptive. This is not just depressing; it’s demoralizing.
Ultimately, it’s dangerous.
I’m now hired not to teach diversity training per se, but to fix a previous training gone wrong. In a workplace where DEI has come and floundered and died, the hostility can be palpable. Employee resistance is often immediate and relentless, largely because there are always folks who assume that the role of the diversity trainer is to be judgmental, impatient, insincere, exclusionary.
But an effective diversity trainer must embody the opposite of these traits. They must be a lot of other things too: empathetic, compassionate, truthful, respectful.
Healthy Workplace Practices/Attitudes
An effective DEI practitioner is not a preacher and diversity training should never even smell like dogma. A healthy workplace is, by definition, inclusionary. Another word for this is respectful. Effective, dynamic teams are born from mutual respect; toxic workplace cultures feed on a lack of it--not just a lack of respect for others’ diverse experiences and backgrounds but their opinions as well. Respect must be taught as a two-way street that expands along with the organization, coursing through every aspect, connecting. When self-respect is fostered, it elevates to something mutual. Ultimately, respect becomes ingrained as part of the organization’s culture. Its connective tissue. Its glue.
The lesson: it’s not about you or me but us.
Every workplace can benefit from a bill of respect, just as a healthy democracy finds its balance within a bill of rights. Each worker should know that they are an individual, entitled to receive patience, empathy, equity, sincerity, compassion and truthfulness from others. Equally important, they should be expected to reciprocate.
How HR Teams Can Prepare
The teaching-learning process is universal. It begins with awareness and progresses to discord (the struggle to integrate new information into what we already know), followed by awkward practice (figuring it out) before integration (folding it into something I already know that may then be actualized). An effective teacher must be aware of the progression from unconscious incompetence (I have no idea what I don’t know how to do) to conscious incompetence (now I realize what it is I don’t know how to do) to conscious competence (I can think and apply what I have learned and feel I know what I’m doing).
DEI training that offers only awareness--which describes most of the last several decades, sadly!--goes no farther than reading the room. Yet, it’s important to move people into understanding what it is we are talking about, then outline why it’s important to understand the various histories, concepts, and perspectives involved. Moreover, an effective teacher must gauge where an audience is, and where one wants to take them, and (finally) when they have arrived there. The art of teaching is often the art of nuance: expanding a learning opportunity, for example, or recognizing when a participant needs support, then changing or adding an activity--knowing when resistance is a red flag and knowing when to stop or even take a step back.
My advice from a quarter century of teaching DEI: Brace yourselves for plenty of discomfort, but don’t avoid it. Offer tools to move through that discomfort to the other side; the other side that strives for equitable and respectful behavior, practice, and policy in the workplace. Even with the best tools and the most experienced teacher, there will be awkward practice in order to integrate and internalize what's been taught. Get there!
And be deliberate. Design is a crucial aspect of preparation. Prepare the fullest experience of learning about oppression, bias, and the roles we play. Within the lessons, there must be intention in how participants move and engage through the learning to change mindset, behavior, and outcomes.
The Most Frequent Types of Conflict and How to Address Them
We can prepare our lessons but not our audiences--which really is a Sisyphean challenge, since a large percentage of America has become hostile toward anything with the words “diversity” or “social justice” attached to it. Of course workplaces reflect the same sentiment. Before the DEI instructor has had time to read the room, at least half of that room is probably bracing for the shame and blame--and figuring out ways to either ignore or deflect it. They don’t see themselves as students but as prisoners and they will act and react as such: sullen, disengaged, unwilling. Occasionally, they can be threatening, even violent.
Audiences that have been subjected to ineffective DEI training are more cynical and less receptive than those with no training at all. Trainers must “unlearn” these folks before we can progress them forward into learning. This requires time, hard work and nuance. But most of all, it requires respect.
So let’s take a moment, off the top, to disabuse our often jaded audiences of this ingrained misunderstanding that embracing diversity implies taking an ideological purity test. It’s a notion that fosters both resistance and resentment. It will quickly make the room toxic if allowed to fester. Let’s immediately make clear that true diversity means the uniqueness of individuality that is used to group people together--their language, ethnicity, age, ability, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, sexual identity and orientation, physical appearance, religious perspective, political ideology, learning style, communication style, life experience, and so on.
Let’s make it clear that DEI is all about the power of uniqueness, not sameness.
Because if diversity training becomes a punitive exercise, if it becomes about what is correct and what is unacceptable, we as educators will continue rolling that stone back up the hill for decades to come.
To take our message to higher ground, we must begin to train with respect.
WRITTEN BYLeah Kyaio