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Elva Ainsworth

Talent Innovations

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

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How to ensure L&D boosts your diversity and inclusion agenda

Real cultural change isn’t about training – it’s about embedding behaviours.

Training programmes regularly feature in organisations’ diversity and inclusion strategies, but how often do they really deliver? Thousands are spent on unconscious bias training, awareness programmes and inclusive hiring programmes, but it often feels as though little has really changed in terms of culture. Any resultant action is disappointing and true cultural change is hard to spot.

That’s not to say that diversity training cannot (or should not) be a vital part of culture change. Training can increase awareness, build skill levels and bring issues to employees’ consciousness. Without addressing deeper cultural issues and behaviours, however, its impact will be limited. Two in three companies report that they conduct unconscious bias training, for example, but without following this up with calls to action, could this just be reinforcing stereotypes?

It is possible to design training courses or experiences so that employees learn what it’s really like to be inside a box imposed by others – feeling this at a visceral level can be highly transformational.

Years ago, I worked in the US amongst Americans and one English woman who happened to be highly organised. Everyone assumed I would be the same – the English generally being seen to be more structured (and arrogant) but perhaps also because of this particular colleague. I had no freedom to be me and got no help at all with organising and planning until I accepted the stereotype and started to play with it. I had to speak out, be unpopular and used humour to get what I needed. I could not rely on others to see the real me.

This is the difference between diversity and inclusion: it’s been shown time and time again that the more diverse the team, the more innovative the ideas and the better impact on the bottom line. A true sense of inclusion, on the other hand, reaps benefits in terms of employees feeling a sense of pride for their organisation, wanting to go the extra mile and improvements in metrics such as wellbeing and fewer disciplinary issues.

The problem is that traditional training often only looks at the former, so while awareness and even numbers might improve from a diversity perspective, the impact on culture is limited because those who are different still feel they are treated differently or don’t have access to the same opportunities as others. Furthermore, it is often positioned as something driven by learning and development teams and ‘done’ to employees. Participants are attending because they ‘should’ – they are not hungry for growth in this area themselves.

Inclusion starts with leaders: if they demonstrate they are committed to hearing everyone’s voice and ensuring that processes empower all employees and not just those who ‘fit’, this filters through the organisation and ensures that day-to-day behaviours do not inadvertently discriminate against others. Here are three strategies to help drive that change.

1. Lead transformation from the top

Culture change needs to be driven by leaders, so focus on them first. By coaching leaders as individuals (or coaching the senior team) in more inclusive behaviours, this can filter down to other leaders and managers and become embedded in their daily actions.

Look at policies and processes such as recruitment and performance management – do they actively support or inhibit inclusion and culture change? It is important to note that if their contribution is only neutral then this will effectively be a barrier to progress and an indirect block to cultural change. How is the organisation structured? More often than not, the way roles or career paths are designed can obstruct certain groups from achieving their potential.

2. Experiential learning

People find it difficult to understand how bias is really affecting others unless they experience it for themselves. As with my experience, people make value judgments based on whether someone is ‘like’ someone else with the same characteristic, meaning we effectively put them into a ‘box.’ It is possible to design training courses or experiences so that employees learn what it’s really like to be inside a box imposed by others – feeling this at a visceral level can be highly transformational.

Help leaders to empathise with others through the power of stories or by spending some time ‘in their shoes.’ Deconstruct how they make decisions and where bias creeps in.

3. Build inclusive leadership

360-degree leadership assessments tend to be built on competency models and, increasingly, these include some inclusivity measures, but are they enough? Training and assessments need to cover all aspects of inclusive leadership: how managers come to judgments, building self-awareness, listening intently for underlying emotion and needs, relating profoundly with everyone, noticing things that others don’t and having the bravery to call things out; even if it is counter-cultural.

Clarifying in detail how managers should be demonstrating respect at work is a critical first step developing emotionally mature and inclusive leaders. This level of detail combined with appropriate coaching and support means that 360s can cause real step changes in self-awareness. Blind spots can be exposed in shocking technicolour.

By taking a more holistic and integrated approach, it’s possible to embed inclusion into everything from how you run meetings to the questions you ask at interviews. Results won’t be immediate, but slowly the resulting actions will feed a positive culture, boost engagement and even improve how your employees feel about coming to work. Most importantly though, diversity training stops being ‘just another thing’ that leaders and their teams have on their to-do list and instead becomes something that inspires real and lasting change.  

Interested in this topic? Read Fixing diversity programmes: diversity, inclusion and deliberate practice.

Author Profile Picture
Elva Ainsworth

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

Read more from Elva Ainsworth

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