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Diversity training: top tips for successful implementation


Training that deals with our beliefs and attitudes must be implemented with clear strategic and tactical intention, says Scott Horton.
Once considered by some to be a uniquely North American phenomenon, diversity education efforts in various forms have become de rigueur in many global companies. The landscape is littered with inclusion and diversity training efforts that had good intentions but had deleterious impact on the overall strategic mission of influencing positive behavioral and organisational changes. 
"The implementation of any successful education effort, and perhaps especially one that deals with our beliefs and attitudes must be implemented with clear strategic and tactical intention."
For example, take the governmental agency that in the early 90s wanted to teach its male employees what their female counterparts had experienced in the form of inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature. They asked all the men at their national training event to walk down a 'gauntlet' of women who were encouraged to whistle, spank and call out the same types of remarks they had been subjected to. 
We might look at this now and say, 'Who in their right mind would do this?' but at the time the intent must have seemed plausible and realistic. The men filed litigation against their employer and the efforts of awareness, inclusion and behavior modification was set back, perhaps by years.
The implementation of any successful education effort, and perhaps especially one that deals with our beliefs and attitudes must be implemented with clear strategic and tactical intention. I've learned a lot over the years about the hallmarks of successful inclusion and diversity training strategies. Below are the key elements of those successful companies. A hint: none of them required anyone to go down a 'gauntlet'.

Organisational priorities

Too often, initiatives focused on diversity end up being seen by business leaders as 'soft stuff' that doesn't directly link to the overall business strategy. We know that diversity (defined most simply as the differences that exist among and between people and parts of the business) is present in every interaction between human beings since no two people are the same. It makes intuitive sense to most human resource professionals that leaders, managers and employees need some basic skill to effectively manage working relationships with customers and colleagues of different cultures, genders, generations and working styles. 
However, to many senior executives who may hold the purse for the training, you may need to make a compelling business case that shows that educational and training efforts are directly linked to bottom line business success. So work with colleagues to identify what the existing high priority business initiatives or priorities are in the organisation and spend time planning in order to ensure the outcomes of the training support this. 

Planning is worth its weight in gold

Develop a plan that will hit the mark the first time out. We spend time analysing specific business objectives, talking to stakeholders and tailoring instructor-led workshops. This tells people you've invested time and effort and have developed a well thought-out process. People are not going to take initiatives seriously unless there's a clearly demonstrated need and requirement so do your preparation and get people on board from the start.

Facilitation is key to success

The topic of human and cultural differences has the power to invoke some strong responses from participants. When less experienced facilitators lead these conversations, the resulting fall-out can be disastrous, setting the training initiative back substantially. Make sure you vet your facilitator carefully, ask questions about their experience and tactics for dealing with difficult situations, and if you can, try to see them in action to make sure they are right for your organisation.

Identify what you want to change

Be honest, are you intending to 'tick the box' in some training so you can say you've done your bit or, is the training intended to be linked to a larger cultural transformation that many believe (including us at Kenexa) is or will be an imperative to succeed with an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-generational, and complex workforce? If your organisation isn't ready to discuss transformation (we know, it's a big and daunting topic for most), then at least ensure that your training content has the chance of creating transformation for the participants. 

Focus on activity

This might seem obvious, but our field is polluted with consulting firms that use this approach, almost always with very good intentions. We've learned that the most memorable, impactful and pragmatic formula for any diversity or inclusion course is the 20/80 split: 20% of the time the facilitator is either telling a story or explaining directions for an activity and 80% of the time participants are engaged in activity, dialogue, dyad or triad discussion or facilitated learning dialogue. 
Look for a provider of training content that understands the difference between experiencing the critical concepts related to diversity and inclusion and talking about them. These are the sometimes difficult topics to teach, such as empathy, compassion, personal responsibility, conceptual flexibility, respectful curiosity, and emotional intelligence . . . all of which are critical mindsets to drive inclusion and engagement of others. It's not probable that mindset is influenced by a lecture or a trainer that enjoys hearing themselves talk.
Whether launching an inaugural training effort or moving to the next stage or level, the deliberateness of the above ideas can be a powerful guide to greater success.   
Scott Horton is the principal diversity consultant for Kenexa.

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