Diversity training needs to promote behaviour change

A new book aims to address criticisms of diversity training and show what works for long-term behaviour change.

Inclusion, diversity and equality concept. Letters on wooden cubes over pink background.


There has been a lot of criticism of late about diversity and inclusion initiatives, particularly unconscious bias training. Some of this is politically biased, but there is also real concern that some schemes are just tickbox exercises.

A new book by seasoned diversity experts from the US looks at what makes diversity training effective. Diversity Training that Generates Real Change traces the evolution of DEI training from its early days in anti-racism work. The book says that, during that period, it has evolved from a strategic, change-oriented, personal development investment, focused on making business better, into a quick-hit, low-cost, check-the-box activity which is often ineffective and has resulted in the idea that “diversity training doesn’t work”.

An important factor is the motivation for training. Authors James O. Rodgers, a thought leader in diversity management, and Laura L Kangas, a global organisational and management development consultant, state: “Look inside many of the organisations declaring themselves diversity-friendly and you will find scant evidence that they desire to practise diversity and inclusion for good commercial or social reasons. The fact that none of the so-called diversity targets involve deep learning or behavioural expectations of executives and employees is a clue that the efforts are intended for gain not improvement.”

They add that unrealistic expectations and unclear objectives have fed into negative press about diversity training, as has under-resourcing of internal diversity practitioners with “little experience with effective change efforts”. They state: “At best, many off-the-shelf DEI courses are designed to make people aware and conversant about DEI issues. These materials will educate, but not motivate; inform, but not transform.”

Training is only a part of the transformation process, they state: it needs to be supported by wider transformation, including embedding of diversity and inclusion in all its senses into core work practices, and by buy-in from the top.

What doesn’t work…and what does

The book points out what doesn’t work. That includes targeting particular groups for training [suggesting that training is there to ‘fix’ them], naming and shaming [the authors say training should adhere to the principle that all humans are equally subject to the traps of unconscious discrimination], focusing too much on theory rather than practice, having sessions that are trainer- and information-led, holding one-off sessions, promoting training that is non strategic and doesn’t make the case for diversity and the need to learn about human behaviour and making sessions mandatory. Low-cost is generally not the best way to go, it adds.

Before starting any training, the authors say it is a good idea to analyse where the organisation is in terms of a diversity-oriented culture. Then comes action. The two factors that have the biggest impact on effective diversity-related training, says the book, are good facilitators and carefully designed exercises. Moreover, good training requires a safe space, a focus on participant-led experiential learning and robust assessment and a sense of a shared experience for all employees from CEO down.

A key issue is making sure people understand why they are doing the training and linking it to competencies and skills that can be acquired, continuous learning and a commitment to real change.


All of this has to be supported by a long-term follow-up plan to affect behaviour change. The authors write: “The purpose of the follow-up plan is to create an environment that acknowledges, welcomes, and rewards the new behaviours. It takes a deliberate, intentional execution plan to pull that off. Humans are creatures of habit. Even after a breakthrough learning event, which alerts us to a better way of being, our tendency is to “lapse back to natural”. The old ways will creep back if we are not deliberate in replacing them with new ways. That deliberate process involves experimenting with new behaviours, expecting new outcomes and examining for better results.”

Change, they argue, only happens if everyone can see the benefits of the new way of doing things. That can be reinforced by reporting on success stories. “Leaders must understand that the goal is not to change attitudes and beliefs – it is to change behaviour. Race is not the problem. Discriminatory behaviour is.”

The book ends with a call to action, saying that the time is ripe for change. “It is time,” say the authors. “The promise of diversity, inclusion and social justice hangs in the balance.”

*Diversity Training that Generates Real Change is published by Berrett-Koehler.

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