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Reflections on Diversity Training

I have a dream

With Martin Luther King Jr. day approaching, my daughter recently asked me a why we take next Monday off school to remember him. As a trainer and a parent, I typically relish in opportunities like this; moments where the learner is engaged and asking good questions. As I began to tell her all about great speeches and peaceful protests, I realized I wasn’t getting through to her. At that moment I thought about all of the diversity training I have sat through in my life and I realized this wasn’t a moment for a lecture.

Good diversity training is extremely important in any organization. Studies show that diversity drives innovation and engagement across cultures in a way that shows respect and creates a safe and healthy work environment. Unfortunately, many organizations have a long way to go in creating a truly inclusive culture, despite mandatory diversity training. Which begs a few questions for me.

What are diversity training initiatives doing wrong?

First and foremost, truly inclusive work cultures do not start and end with training. However, training is an element and it can set the tone for inclusive cultures.

Second, you cannot simply tell someone to be inclusive. As trainers, we know that simply telling a group of people that a certain behavior is right or wrong is very unlikely to change that behavior. Threatening to take something away as a consequence of a behavior may make a temporary change, but rarely solves the problem.

Third, inclusion isn’t a reaction. I have found no evidence that mandatory training after a complaint (or EEOC settlement) has proven effective. Anecdotally, I have seen participants unhappy in these types of trainings and harbor resentment towards the parties who made the initial complaint.

What can we do to fix diversity training?

Inclusion is mindset. You cannot tell someone how to be inclusive, you need to let them come to inclusive conclusions on their own. A good way to facilitate this is by using several empathy building activities in training. Let’s take a look at a few ways to build empathy in the class room.


Reflection gives time for participants to come up with ideas on their own. Facilitating a journaling activity where participants are challenged to think of different ways of seeing interactions and events that have happened around the office or through case studies or a journaling activity where participants reflect on their own blind spots that may have emerged following a discussion or activity are opportunities for deeper learning.

My colleague Brian Washburn described the opportunity to journal and reflect after a small group discussion on Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack article to be life-changing.

How I See It

How I See It for diversity training

Role plays can be effective, but it can be very difficult to develop appropriate role-play scenarios in a diversity training context. One strategy that we’ve found to be effective in getting people to engage and share a variety of opinions is an activity called “How I See It” in which general statements are written on a card and then individuals within small groups are asked to share whether they agree or disagree with the statement, and why.

A statement such as “I feel all racial and ethnic groups are portrayed fairly in popular culture” is an example of a general statement that could lead to important discussion.

Virtual Reality

When the VR company Oculus created their movie about a hedgehog who loved to hug, they added many comical moments about his struggle with things like balloons. In testing, they found the audience had more empathy for the hedgehog than originally anticipated. What they didn’t realize was that the perspective of virtual reality made comedy at the hedghog’s expense seem mean because the viewers feel much closer to the hedgehog and this facilitated more empathy than typical cartoons. Using VR technology to put participants in the shoes of someone else is an excellent way to create empathy. I suggest creating any VR activities similar to the way you would create role-playing scenarios. Only this time participants get to look awesome in VR goggles.

As we take time on Monday to honor the birthday of a man who worked so hard to fight inequality, take some time to reflect the inclusiveness of your work culture. What can we do to make our working environments more inclusive? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

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