Making diversity training effective

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While there may not be a magic bullet to ensure we all get along, effective diversity training can help

Research shows that teams with varying backgrounds and ideas are better for business than homogenous ones. But getting diverse groups to live or work well together is easier said than done.

Look at the headlines over the past few years. For example, after a police officer in Missouri shot and killed an unarmed black man in 2014 the resulting civil unrest separated those who argued the officer was justified from those who saw Michael Brown as a victim. These stark differences in response illustrate the steep challenges of diversity training.

It seems naïve to suggest that diversity training could prevent another tragedy like Brown, or of course like the recent London Bridge attack – but what is our alternative? More than ever we need strong diversity education from schools, businesses and other organisations to help people understand others who see things differently.

We examined more than 40 years of research and combined data from 260 studies and more than 29,000 participants, assessing the effects of diversity training on four outcomes over time and across characteristics of training context, design and participants. The overall effect of diversity training was positive, but somewhat small. We discovered that some programmes reported great results, others had no effect, and some even backfired, leaving participants more resentful of diverse groups. For example, one cultural awareness programme for California jail inmates resulted in more negative intergroup relations and less tolerance toward other ethnicities.

We also found that the effects of diversity training on reactions and attitudes decayed over time. For example, someone who is prejudiced against black people before diversity training may experience a positive shift in attitudes and become less prejudiced. However, those attitudes may shift back closer to what they were pre-training in response to media accounts of unrest, especially if such reports cast minorities in a negative light.

In contrast, diversity training’s effects on cognitive learning remained stable or in some cases even increased long term. It may be that after training, cues in the workplace or elsewhere reinforce the concepts trainees learned. Perhaps as people are reminded of scenarios they covered in training the knowledge they gained is more readily maintained, and even strengthened over time.

So what makes a good diversity training programme? Many factors you might expect to be important don’t seem to make a difference. For instance, we found the significance of setting has been overstated.

The more important issue is the relationship between diversity training efforts and other complementary initiatives. A networking group for minority professionals, supported by the organisation, could serve as a follow-up outcome and mentoring source and help underscore the organisation’s commitment to diversity.

Longer diversity training programmes also tend to be more effective, so volume matters. Essentially effective diversity training takes time and is not a ‘one-shot deal’. In addition, most effective diversity training programmes were primarily designed to increase both awareness of cultural differences and skills in working with people. Focusing solely on one or the other does not work.

Ultimately, our study shows that while many diversity training programmes do not follow best practices, some programmes do and guidelines for successful training continue to emerge from research. So, while there may not be a magic bullet to ensure all of us get along with one another, effective diversity training can help. By using a comprehensive programme, with well-executed techniques, we may nudge individuals toward increased tolerance.

Kate Bezrukova is an associate professor of organisation and human resources in the University of Buffalo’s School of Management

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