When Diversity Training Is Not Enough: How to Move from Awareness to Collaborative Action

by Deborah Rocco

For 20+ years, I’ve been helping Talent Managers advance more women into senior leadership – and helping women leaders build the confidence and competence to be agents of change.

The workforce of large American companies reflects the diversity of America – half the world’s ethnicities, the colors of the rainbow, ages 18 to 80, with talent and energy that is driving tremendous innovation and productivity.

Workplace demographics in the United States will transform over the next several decades:

  • By 2020, there will be more women working and more women in the professions than men (except for engineering).
  • As people live longer and retire later, multiple generations working side by side will become more commonplace.
  • By 2050, there will be no ethnic or racial majority in the workforce.

Diversity is also broader than the inherent traits we are born with, including sexual orientation, gender, and ethnicity. Diversity also includes the experiences which shape the way we view the world: the neighborhood we grew up in, an assignment in another part of the company or the country, work in different industries, or several months traveling or doing volunteer work.

Also, diversity isn’t a one-dimensional issue: The experience of an over-50 woman of color can't be fully understood within the context of a binary discussion about men and women.

We work with people who have a wealth of experiences very different from our own – and our workplace is going to get more and diverse as the years go by.

As a company leader and talent manager, ask yourself: Are you ahead of the curve or stuck in reaction mode around all these changes?

Implications for Leaders

The conversation about diversity and inclusion is not a new one. In the 1980’s and 90’s, as workplace demographics shifted – and as discrimination lawsuits became prevalent – many organizations responded with training designed to help leaders increase awareness about unconscious bias and its impact.

I led a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) training initiative for a large telecommunications company and saw many leaders identify blind spots and leave the training with an increased awareness and a strong intention to lead differently.  

Fast forward almost twenty years to this question: What happened?  For one, the focus on D&I took a backseat to other business priorities; the realization of a global economy and increased competition, economic down-turns and limited resources, technological advancements and an unprecedented pace of change.  What resulted is the need for organizations to be more agile, responsive, and innovative than ever before.  

And, there is some good news here.  Research would suggest that diversity, managed well, leads to increased innovation, more responsiveness to customer segments, and ultimately better business results. 

For example, a 2007 study reported by Catalyst states, companies with more women board directors outperformed those with the least on three financial measures: +53% return on equity, +45% return on sales, +66% return on invested capital.   A 2012 study by the Center of Talent Innovation published in HBR reported the employees of companies that foster both inherent diversity in the workforce as well as acquired diversity among their leaders are 70% more likely to report the organization has captured new markets within the previous 12 months.

Yet, many of us know from experience, leading a diverse workforce and reaping the potential benefits is no easy task.  Managed poorly, diversity can lead to communication breakdowns, great ideas left on the table, disjointed actions and an inability to execute.  Worse yet, poorly managed diversity frequently leads to disenfranchised employees, lack of trust, and ultimately high employee churn.  The net result is a hit to the company's bottom line. 

For example, many of our clients are reporting increased difficulty recruiting and retaining female talent and/or they are seeing a difference in the degree of trust women have for the organization as captured on engagement surveys.  Our own trust research has shown that many employees have uneven trust in their bosses and senior leadership.

Moving to Action

Which brings us to our current state; the most diverse workforce in history and the urgent need for organizations to capitalize on this diversity.  So once again Diversity and Inclusion training is front and center on the business agenda.  But if we want different results we need to move beyond helping leaders understand unconscious bias and identify blind spots.  We need to provide them with the tools they need to support their good intentions. 

Bottom line: We need to build the capability in our leaders in three important areas:

Build understanding and increase trust.  First and foremost a leader must have the self-awareness to recognize their own biases and self-correct.  They must understand the dynamics of trust (add link to our research) and the behaviors that build or destroy it.  This is a prerequisite to fostering a culture where a healthy exchange of ideas and perspectives can be shared.
Facilitate agreement.  Leaders need a set of tools to guide a dialogue, build consensus, and make decisions in a way that enrolls and engages everyone. 
Take concerted action.  Leaders must be able to move a diverse group of people toward a common goal.  Execution depends on it.

Ultimately we need self-aware leaders who have the capability to reap the benefits of diversity and ignite the power of collaborative action.  Let's not just repeat the past.  Let's move from awareness to action.

Take our fitness test – see how best to help leaders build on your diversity training and inclusion.  Our complimentary 30-minute consultation will help you assess your organization across five critical dimensions for stronger business results.

To schedule a complimentary consultation now – Contact Us.


* Bureau of Labor Statistics

Tags : diversity collaboration leadership collaborative leadership