In this latest instalment of our UNLEASHcast interview series we sit down with Nikki Samant-Jones and Matthew MacLachlan to get the truth about diversity training. Listen in today!
Check out the the audio above, or the full transcript beneath…
UNLEASH: Nikki, Matthew, thank you so much for talking to a nice cast today. How you doing?
NS-J: Thank you. Thank you for having us this morning, Jon. It’s a pleasure to be here.
UNLEASH: Likewise, it’s really good to have you on and you’ve comes with quite a big and controversial statement to start off. So why don’t we start there? Diversity training doesn’t work. This is where we’re going to start. It’s a bold statement. Let’s dig into it. Nikki, I’m going to come to you first on this.
NS-J: Thanks, Jon, I think we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the world of diversity training since #metoo. I think there’s a whole sort of world event, if you like, that prompted a lot of organizations to kind of go, yeah, we need to do something about diversity, and training’s the answer, let’s almost tick a box. I hate saying that. But let’s do a tick box exercise. But I think while the thought process and the reasoning behind diversity training is in the right place, I don’t personally think diversity training works, because you’re raising awareness of issues through training.
But you’re not always resolving it, the challenge of unconscious bias, the challenge of not being collaborative, the challenge of lack of cultural intelligence, it cannot be solved by putting someone in front of an expert for two hours per se. You know, it isn’t just what’s going to work, I think you’re talking about years of how unconscious bias has developed, right, as human beings, it’s our experiences. It’s how we do things, which has been shaped over the entirety of our lifetime. And we’re suddenly seeing two hours of standing in front of a group of people with an expert is going to change that. So I don’t think it actually works.
UNLEASH: Matthew, what would you what would you add to this, in terms of the efficacy of diversity training.
MM: Diversity training’s got a reputation problem – people don’t want to do it. I think that the fundamental problem is that for adults to learn, we have to see what’s in it for me. If I’m going to learn how to do something, as Nicky said, I couldn’t overcome 20,000, 30,000 years of evolutionary development, which has told me to be suspicious of people who are different, to be frightened to be wary around people who are further. And there’s no benefit to me in doing diversity training, or certainly the way it’s positioned at the moment. And I think there are two fundamental problems that diversity training is either run by diversity experts, who know, very, very little about training, or by training experts who know very, very little about diversity.
So as I attended some training for a group of business people who had been asked to mentor Black students, who were about to enter the workforce, the trainer was was a brilliant trainer, fantastic trainer, huge credibility. But he stood up in front of this group of about 30 people, I suppose there are about 26,27, women and just three men. And he said, it’s great to see so many women here because women are so much more empathetic than men. And I’m thinking as a way of starting off training on diversity to start off with promoting this horrendous stereotype. I waited till the coffee break, and I didn’t come back. So we need to be able to combine expertise in the subject matter knowledge with what we know about adult learning. And so far, diversity training hasn’t really grabbed hold of what we know about how adults learn.
NS-J: I can also add to that, Jon, I mean, I had a personal experience. So I’m from India, originally, I’ve lived outside in five or six countries around the world, but I still remember my first sort of experience of being treated differently, because that’s what diversity is, right? Because, you know, it’s how we treat others, and moving to the Middle East with an International Hotel Group, and in a position that was going to manage local people. And suddenly there is there is a whole lot of interest because when I was a woman, too, I’d come for me. And this I’m hoping is an outdated perception, but of the Middle East and the relationship with the Asian subcontinent is that this is one of servitude.
It took me over the period of five years, even at the end of the five year period, it took me a while to develop my cultural intelligence to recognize how to treat people, and how to communicate more effectively, to get them to do things that I needed them to do or deliver on. It took me a while to recognize that trust and relationships was really, really important, before I could become more task focused. And I don’t think diversity training can help you achieve that – it can create a sense of awareness, but it cannot change behaviors within a short span of time. And I think that’s why diversity training fails.
UNLEASH: There’s three parts to the term, well at UNLEASH anyway. It’s diversity, equity and inclusion, right? And these things get used interchangeably, often, but perhaps they’re not the same things. And there’s a big difference between what’s related to diversity, what’s related to inclusion, and how these two things are different. So Matthew, could you expand a little bit on that – how the there’s an actual difference in perception and content, and these two different terms?
MM: You’re right, people do tend to use them, either, as one word with hyphens in between, as meaning the same thing. Generally, we hold on to stuff we don’t deal with. Diversity is just a fact. Diversity is a state of being. Every single team is made up of people. They’re all individuals, they all have a unique set of background and experiences. That’s diversity. Matthew Syed calls it cognitive diversity. In other words, we all develop our brain patterns in in a different way. So we bring a unique experience. And that’s diversity.
Obviously, in a more political context, we’re talking about the nine protected characteristics. I’m not going to embarrass myself by trying to remember all nine of them. But for example, race, ethnicity, faith, sexuality, gender, presentation, pregnancy, marital status, things like that, I got through five or six of them before I decided to give up, I’m trying to find the other three. And generally, when you look at a team in our modern workplace, it is very, very rare that you will have a completely homogenous mono-cultural group of white men, all with the same background, the same experience. Inclusion is an active process, where you involve everybody where you value and respect that diversity, where you recognize that each person adds value to the team through that unique set of differences.
So Nikki was mentioning that she has quite a lot of experience in Bahrain in the Middle East. I don’t know the Middle East at all. So when we’re talking about dealing with our international clients, I can bring a European perspective and to some respects, some senses a central eastern European perspective, Nikki can bring in her Bahraini expert expertise. And actually, that means that we’ve covered as much larger parts of the world, and how we just focus on one or the other of us. So inclusion is recognizing the value and giving respect to the difference rather than just brushing it under the corner. And that’s why this phrase ‘I don’t see color’, or ‘I don’t see gender’ is problematic. Because we actually need to recognize the fact that I am different, I do have my own set of values and way of doing things that adds value to the whole situation.
And the final one, equity, is probably the most difficult equity is about justice, where we are looking to try and redress some of the inequity, some of the unfairness that we’ve built in into society. So we know for a fact that if you ask a group of people to assign bonuses to a random selection of people, they will give better bonuses, bigger bonuses to men than they will women. That’s just because we are conditioned by society to associate success and power with men.
Now, obviously, there’s a whole range of people working to address that. But in every single country in the world that I’m aware of, there is a gender pay gap, where men earn more for the same job than women do. I bet even Wikipedia can’t tell me if there’s any country in the world where women earn more than men for the same job. Society has conditioned us to associate men with with importance, with power, with success. Equity is about saying we need to redress that balance, we need to create a culture where women do get paid the same for the same work, where people aren’t discriminated against in the recruitment process, where someone who has an odd name or a foreign sounding name isn’t discarded in the shortlisting process, how we do that? There’s a whole range of strategies, we certainly don’t have time to talk about it now. But equity is an active process of redressing the balance.
UNLEASH: In the run up to organizing this, a term that you both started using was cultural intelligence, which is two words I understand, but together not something that I’ve heard in the context of D,E&I, although I can kind of work out what it might be about, but can you dig into that a bit? What is cultural intelligence? What isn’t cultural intelligence?
NS-J: Yeah, absolutely. I think I alluded to it earlier as well. For me, it’s about how things are done, right? You know, or how you like to do things. We all understand everyone’s unique, we all have an individual personality, etc. But what makes us who we are, and to me, that’s our culture, it’s the values, it’s your parents and how they raised you, or however you were raised into education into life experiences, it’s even the the art and the poetry you read, that influences you. And that kind of says, This is how I like to do things here. And I think cultural intelligence then is recognizing that about yourself and how you like to do things.
So the first point being self-awareness, enhanced self-awareness. And then as a result of that increased self awareness, it’s being able to look at a situation or an interaction, whether it’s with a team that you’re working with, whether it’s clients, whether it’s peers, or leadership interactions, and kind of putting on this lens of, there’s a lot going on in this interaction that is almost pushed forward because of the values that the person holds, or the culture that they come from.
So we’re not talking about national culture here. National culture is great, because it allows you to decipher things, and we’re certainly not stereotyping. We’re not going to say all Germans like to do things in a timely manner, because there’s a lot of Germans that don’t, right. And I think for me, to give you an analogy, maybe to explain to listeners much more easily. Culture is what’s under the iceberg. So what you see on the surface, and an interaction is a tiny portion of what’s underneath the surface line.
UNLEASH: Okay, where do we go from here? This is the next step. What is the solution to diversity training? It’s obviously going to include some element of cultural intelligence, awareness, bringing that into the process. What do we think, Matthew, let’s come to you first.
MM: I think we started off right at the beginning that we said that the problem with diversity training is that we don’t sell it enough to the people who are actually doing the training. And the biggest problem with diversity and inclusion training is people who look like me, middle aged, middle class, white men don’t see why they should do it. They don’t see what’s in it for them. So the first thing we need to do is we actually need to talk about what are the reasons that make this diversity training useful to me as an individual. And when we know from research, that the companies that have a group that are in the top 25% for diversity outperform significantly those others, we can actually say that productivity, creativity, innovation within teams goes up when you have a good approach to including people within your team.
So rather than focusing on the negatives, by positioning diversity as a problem, making that switch to focusing on the positive benefits, that gives me a reason to be involved in this training. If I’m in sales, and you tell me, you’re going to sell more, if you have a better approach to diversity and inclusion, that motivates me, because at the end of the month, I get a bigger commission check or whatever is the incentive. So I think that’s that’s the first point. We’ve also alluded to the second point. Don’t expect two hours or a half day of training or even worse, a one-hour elearning course, to solve inclusion in your organization: apart from anything else, I don’t believe that an hour of elearning can solve anything other than insomnia. But I do think that we have 1000s and 1000s of years of evolution to overcome. And so when what we need is a much more extended, consistent cultural change within the organization, that’s not fixed by one-off training. We would recommend taking an approach where maybe drip-feed small bits of information, small bits of knowledge, followed by a more coaching-style approach.
Because again, I think diversity training excludes the learners. It says to learn as you’re wrong, you’re evil, you you do things wrong, you don’t get it right. It doesn’t actually listen to the learners. So rather than having an instructor telling people what to do, which is training, and let’s be honest, who do we train, we train animals, we train dogs, we train dolphins, what we actually want to do is was get people to learn new skills, new approaches, new ways of doing it. And you have to do that over time. You have to do that by coaching.
I think the second thing that’s really important is whether it’s the L&D team, whether it’s the stakeholder commissioning, I’m not going to call it ‘training’, I’m going to call it ‘learning’ could go, who is going to commission that diversity learning, they need to be courageous. We need to learn from real examples. Again, in a previous organization, we went out and we filmed staff, and customers who had experience of discrimination, who’ve had experience of microaggressions, you had, in some way felt that the system hadn’t treated them fairly. And we built our learning journey around those stories. And they suddenly became personal. It wasn’t abstract. It wasn’t a stock image, a perfect looking actor talking about some abstract situation, it was a real situation, using the language of our business, using the language of our customers, and situations that I recognized. That made it personal. And because we then had coaching, group coaching, to reflect on those stories, it was me saying, I can see the problem.
And me as part of the team, as part of the organization, as someone who is invested in this business, emotionally and financially, I’m suggesting a solution rather than being told a solution. Adults generally respond much better when they discover solutions by themselves. We don’t like the easy answer. That’s why we have a 6 billion pounds video gaming industry. Because people like to be challenged in life to find their own solutions. They like to entertain themselves with difficult challenges. And so learning that comes through a challenge where you’ve been presented with a problem and you find the solution yourself is much, much more effective.
UNLEASH: Nikki, in terms of the solution to diversity training – a rather big question, but we’ve made some decent inroads there from Matthew into what to do next. What can you add to this?
NS-J: Oh, it’s a huge question, isn’t it? Because everyone’s got to start somewhere. I think if you’re trying to create a culture of inclusion, and you’re trying to create more diversity within your organization, I think initially, it’s the realization that diversity is not a challenge. It’s a good thing if you understand how to leverage it. And again, we’ve talked about the duration of training, etc. I think ongoing, little nuggets of experiences to learn from is far better than just saying we’re going to do a tick box exercise and just do a two hour session or an hour’s masterclass or whatever you may call it, but I give kudos to the organizations who are consciously addressing a situation with immense challenges around budgets, around time constraints and trying to get people to really recognize that they need some behavioral changes.
And for me, I think whatever you’re going to do, as an initiative, get buy in from the top, that’s the first thing organizations need to do. If your leadership team is kind of saying we need diversity training and they’re not going to participate in it themselves, they’re not actually going to say, yes, we own this. And we will attend the training ourselves. I’m sorry, again, it’s preaching from from the pulpit and not actually doing it yourself.
And I think that needs to change fundamentally for any kind of learning to work, not just diversity training. I also think storytelling is very powerful. Getting people and their voices heard is far better than putting someone on a training program. So try reverse mentoring, try finding your diverse groups, whether it’s ethnic diversity, its disability, etc, and get them to have a voice and mentor leadership within the organization to really change that culture and become more inclusive.
I think the ownership needs to be on every single individual to want to change how they think and the unconscious biases that they have. But I think you have to start somewhere. So if diversity training helps you start somewhere, that’s great, but what we’re saying is, let’s move on beyond the training component.
UNLEASH: Well, Nikki, Matthew, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an incredible education on diversity training. I think we’ve learned many, many things. But the first thing is you shouldn’t just fall back on what you know, the accepted methods of training and think that they’re going to solve any problems and there’s just so much more we can do to actually make these things effective.
So yeah, thanks a lot for talking to UNLEASHcast and have a great day.
Both: Thanks, Jon. You too.
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