Why your diversity program isn’t moving the needle

Ask any learning and development professional what their biggest initiative is right now, and you can just about bet it is going to have something to do with diversity and inclusion. While many organizations have had diversity programs in place for decades, it is only over the past several years that we have seen diversity and inclusion evolving into more than a U.S.-centric, compliance-driven issue on any large scale. It has permeated the public consciousness through academic articles, thought pieces, corporate scandals, and political debate—all in a way that few other business topics have managed to. The speed at which new research is presented is outstanding, making it impossible to ignore the impact that an inclusive workplace has on financial results and employee morale.

Anthony Greco

Throughout this shift, there has been no shortage of resources available for organizations to draw from to help educate their employees and make a change. Yet we find that many organizations are still struggling to see a lasting impact of their training initiatives. For every best practice corporate example out there, there are many more that seemingly fizzle from memory. But why is that? In our experience, there are a few common mistakes related to diversity programs being made.

You Can’t Save the World in 4 Minutes

I once read an interview with Justin Timberlake where he discussed writing the song “4 Minutes” with Madonna. It all stemmed from a conversation they had in which Madonna wanted a meaningful song with a deep message, and Timberlake made the offhand remark “you can’t save the world in 4 minutes.” What does this tongue-in-cheek title have to do with diversity and inclusion?

Well, the same idea holds true that you can only accomplish so much in any given timeframe. Micro-learning and repetition are incredibly useful learning strategies, but they require consistent visibility over long periods of time in order to make macro changes. For a topic like diversity and inclusion, this just might not be enough to make an impact quickly enough to please shareholders. We’re consistently asked to provide more content in smaller windows of time, which limits the amount of personal connection and application participants can experience. Every journey may start with a step, but you can’t stop after just one step.

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The Facebook Effect

That brings us to the next challenge, what I like to call the Facebook effect.  Everybody shares only their brightest, happiest moments on social media. As a society, we’ve collectively forgotten how to “get ugly.” For some individuals, the story of diversity and inclusion is the stuff that nightmares are made of. For others, it is just another box to check. And for others still, it is a direct challenge to the status quo where they have been comfortably sitting. So how do you bridge these vastly different experiences?

Diversity and inclusion is an emotional topic, and you need to allow for people to get emotional—to get ugly. This requires time to draw out experiences from individuals who may have felt silenced in their life; this requires a safe atmosphere where people can ask questions about things they do not understand without fear of being called a bigot; it requires a space for people to argue and challenge one another. An effective diversity and inclusion initiative requires people to come face-to-face with one another, their perceptions, and their experiences and synthesize it in a meaningful way that will encourage change. And all of this requires a facilitator who can “go there” with the participants, while managing to prevent it from becoming all out chaos.

Started from the Bottom, Now We’re Here

In one of his songs, Drake talks about his journey from the bottom and having made it “here” to the top—but in the case of many organizations, “here” is often no better than where they started. From a learning perspective, it is always desirable to scale initiatives to reach as many people as possible. We have to change the collective language and the collective psyche of the organization to see change. However, all too often the responsibility for a diverse and inclusive workplace is left to those at the bottom of the organizational food chain.

It is important for everyone to understand the importance of these topics and to know what they can personally do, but it does not matter how much training you provide to individual contributors and frontline managers if the most senior echelons of the organization do not also embrace it and come face-to-face with their own metaphorical demons. Simply put, many organizations are failing from the top. Truly impactful initiatives need to be role-modeled and demonstrated from the most senior executives, all the way down to support staff and even interns. It’s not enough to just have a strong foundation—you also need to make sure the roof of the building is not going to blow off during the first storm.

The First Rule of Change is You Have to Want to Change

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This may not be the biggest challenge of making a macro-impact, but it is one to be aware of. Not everyone wants to change. Maybe they don’t see the “what’s in it for me,” or maybe they even feel like they will be put at a disadvantage in ways they are not used to. Not everybody is going to get onboard, and you may have to let the world around them change before they make any changes (if they ever do at all). Diversity and inclusion is not the same as teaching someone to use a new software, and these initiatives need a different set of metrics. You’re not going to reach everybody, and that’s OK! Set realistic goals for your initiatives, and focus on changing the system. Over time people will either change or self-select out of the system.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to diversity and inclusion. There is no perfect answer that is going to make your organization truly inclusive overnight. But much like the topic of diversity and inclusion, the first step to making change is awareness—and being aware of some of these common pitfalls is a first step toward making better decisions. If we want to see real change, we have to be willing to put in real effort (and likely real money)—but like the research tells us, if we can manage to do so, the reward will be well worth the effort.

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Anthony Greco is director of Core Learning Services for Aperian Global.

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