Companies Urgently Need Diversity—But Bias Trainings Aren't the Only Way | Opinion

President Trump was wrong to call diversity training "anti-American propaganda" when it acknowledges, for example, that white people "benefit from racism." That's simply a fact -- of course they do. And his administration's claim that these types of training "run counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception" makes no sense to anyone with even a rudimentary sense of U.S. history, which includes slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws and more.

As CNN reports, the president's decision to ban such training from the federal government was inspired by Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News. Among the many people speaking out against the decision was Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, who tweeted, "POTUS calls the treatment the sickness, and suggests the sickness is the treatment."

But there is a piece of good news for those in the federal government who are committed to achieving diverse, inclusive workplace cultures despite the president's order. Such "trainings" are not the only way—and and not even the best way.

The benefits of diversity

First, it's crucial to understand that diversity is of tremendous benefit to an organization even from a dollars-and-cents perspective. As the World Economic Forum put it, "The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming." Among the benefits are "increased profitability and creativity, stronger governance and better problem-solving abilities. Employees with diverse backgrounds bring to bear their own perspectives, ideas and experiences, helping to create organizations that are resilient and effective, and which outperform organizations that do not invest in diversity."

To attract and retain a diverse workforce, and to encourage everyone to share their ideas and perspectives, businesses need inclusive cultures. When people face racism, including the unconscious kind, at work, they're less likely to share ideas—and less likely to stay with the company.

As Denise Hamilton recently wrote for Newsweek, Black people have long faced prejudice at work in ways that many other people don't realize. Training sessions have been aimed, in large part, at rooting out racism from the workplace. Companies have spent tens of billions of dollars on it.

Unfortunately, this training generally doesn't achieve its goals, research shows. It can even backfire. As a Newsweek Vantage study explained in 2017, "By hearing that others are biased and it's 'natural' to hold stereotypes, we feel less motivated to address biases and stereotypes are strengthened." Also, it can "foster an 'Us' against 'Them' approach with members of the majority feeling blamed and shamed, and members of minority groups feeling frustrated, not heard, and not seeing change happen."

There's a better way. I've spent years working with organizations to design cultures that bring about big, substantive changes. These can be aimed at tackling all sorts of problems. For example, I work with parts of the U.S. military to build a culture of greater agility and innovation.

Similarly, through implementing workplace culture change, businesses can enhance commitments to diversity and psychological safety, creating environments in which everyone feels welcome to bring up and address problems that need fixing—including bias.

It begins with statements clearly establishing the guiding beliefs, mindsets and principles of the organization. But this must be backed up by actions. Employees at all levels, from entry positions to the C-Suite, are expected to treat each other in ways that reflect the cultural commitment. So rather than being punished or rejected for bringing up a problem they're facing, employees are encouraged and sometimes even rewarded for doing so. And people learn to watch out for each other, noticing and reporting instances of bias that they see.

Social learning theory shows that people develop new behaviors by copying what they see, not by being told what to do. So creating behavioral change in a business needs to be treated as a social change project, not a training exercise.

One of the strongest success stories is Microsoft. CEO Satya Nadella took the helm and enacted culture change. Employees described a dramatic turnaround. The company's stock prices skyrocketed. It's no surprise he was recently named the top CEO for diversity efforts. (Full disclosure: My company has done some work with Microsoft.)

On the flip side, Boeing's failure to create a truly inclusive culture made it a "textbook case" for disaster. Employees didn't feel psychologically safe to address systemic problems in the organization.

Racism continues to be a systemic problem that prevents organizations from doing their best. Only in cultures in which people feel free to speak up can it be addressed and fixed.

This isn't a matter of corporate overreach. Every organization has a management system that shows employees the actions that are expected and the values that it stands for. The key is to make a real commitment to diversity and inclusion so fundamental to that system that it gets "baked into" the culture. (The Department of Interior, for example, says on its website that it's in the midst of a "workplace culture transformation" that ensures everyone is free from discrimination and harassment.)

When organizations make these changes happen, everyone committed to building a successful, more equitable society comes out ahead.

Jason Korman is CEO at Gapingvoid Culture Design Group.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.