Why diversity training fails
Do you often find yourself treating your colleagues differently on the basis of their race or gender?
Pose this question to a co-worker, and you’re likely to be met with a confident “No”, along with potentially an uncomfortable stare.
Yet unfairness persists. The glass ceiling remains firmly in place. Women and ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented and often underpaid in many fields.
While open prejudice and discrimination remain pressing issues in workplaces around the world, the more elusive challenge facing many modern organizations is that of unconscious bias. This is not a new concept, nor will it be unfamiliar to many readers. So why is it that both public and private organisations have struggled to overcome bias among their employees, despite the best attempts that millions – perhaps billions – of dollars can buy?
The answer is right there in the name itself: unconscious. By its very nature, we’re not aware when it’s impacting our decisions. To go even further, it’s in our very nature not to be.
We humans like to think of ourselves as purely rational beings, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s not to say we’re not capable of rational thought. However, to deal with the sheer number of actions and decisions the brain must process each and every waking minute, it often attempts to automate as many of these as possible.
Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman proposed a dichotomy to describe two distinct processing styles: “System 1” for the faster, instinctive thinking, and “System 2” for more deliberative, logical, rational thought.
Of the thousands of actions you take each day, consider how many of them to which you devote conscious thought. Some neurologists say it’s less than 10%. Just as your brain doesn’t actively consider each step along the sidewalk, neither does it devote its full power of logic and reason to many social interactions.
While this “System 1” thinking serves to make us efficient employees and free our cognitive resources for only the most pressing aspects of our jobs, it creates the perfect conditions for bias to thrive. Assessing the individual traits, character, and ability of each co-worker or job candidate we interact with is exactly the sort of arduous task that the brain is loath to do. Relying on pre-existing stereotypes and heuristics, based on easily observable traits, to make quick, instinctive decisions about people is infinitely less resource-intensive, and that’s often the path our brain takes.
While this new outlook has served to dramatically enhance our understanding of how bias creeps into our everyday lives at home and work, the news is not all good. As it turns out, people are incredibly resistant to the notion that they may not be nearly as rational as they think.
The initial thinking of many organizational researchers was that by simply making employees aware of bias in the workplace, it would be reduced. There was some mixed support for this in the laboratory, but the results have not translated well to the office.
In a comprehensive review of the existing literature, researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev concluded that many diversity training programmes, and particularly those which focused on bias, had negligible long-term effects. The failure was particularly pronounced in mandatory programmes, which is troubling, as the people most likely to benefit from such trainings are often the least likely to volunteer.
This shouldn’t be surprising. We’re talking about cognitive processes ingrained in us over thousands of years of human evolution. Sorting this out in a yearly, two-hour diversity appreciation workshop was always going to be a risky proposition.
What researchers are beginning to propose instead, however, is a change of focus. Rather than trying to change the way the individual employee thinks, to how we can instead change the context in which they think.
This approach is built on the emerging field of behavioural economics, and notably, “Nudge Theory”, as put forward by University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler. Briefly, this describes impacting peoples’ decision-making with generally minor changes to the context in which the choice is made. Smaller plates cause people to consume less food, being informed that your neighbours have voted makes you more likely to vote; the possibilities are endless.
This way of thinking provides a way forward for organizations and diversity. We need to outsmart our brains.
Rather than attempt to ‘cure’ all employees of bias, why not change the context of the workplace to influence people to make unbiased decisions? Tactics like removing names from resumes force hiring managers to activate their “System 2” thinking when assessing a candidate. Perhaps companies set “homogeneity reduction goals” vs “diversity targets.” There are countless ideas that need to be assessed, both in practice and in the lab, and organizations must commit to supporting this research.
There can be no question that workforce diversity remains a massive issue as we enter 2017. There’s both a business and a moral imperative to make it work. While far from providing a complete solution, this rethinking of how we approach diversity training shows a promising path forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Marcinko Group Researcher
Andrew is a PhD Candidate in the Work and Organisational Psychology department at Aston Business School. His current research is focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with a particular focus on training, team performance, and employee well-being.