President Donald Trump has taken a number of steps in recent months to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) training programs in the federal government and even at federal contractors. He has even mentioned it during the presidential debate on September 29. At issue are terms such as “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” and “critical race theory” (CRT), an obscure academic framework that examines existing power structures in society with respect to race, law and power. He called the CRT “un-American” and Russell Vought, director of the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget, appealed to “work with agencies to identify non-American training” and find them wherever they exist.
It is true that diversity training is often ineffective and even counterproductive. Where President Trump is wrong is in believing that the total elimination of these formations is the best cure. They are necessary to keep and get the most out of our an increasingly diverse workforce.
My colleagues and I have spent the past six months studying DE&I programs across the United States. We took a look at what works and what doesn’t. We found three main mistakes made by ineffective ED&I programs:
1. Paint all white people, especially all white men, as racists.
In a DE&I training I once attended, I was seated at a lunch table with a middle-aged white male colleague. What happened in this training explains why some – and perhaps most – such programs fail. During a break, the man was berated by a white colleague who told him that “him and his kind” are the problem and that white male patriarchy is essentially the root of all evil. She continued on such harsh terms that he politely asked her to stop attacking her. When she didn’t, he got up and left after no one, including me – much to my regret – and the DE&I manager of that institution who was present, stepped in to intervene. This session was clearly not effective in him and probably left a bad taste in your mouth as far as all DE&I training goes.
2. Numb the audience with a long set of slides.
Passive lectures that explain to people what implicit bias or systemic racism is and then try to persuade participants to recognize it in themselves don’t work and have even been shown to be counterproductive. Presentation slides delivered by a facilitator standing at the front of the room do not work as well as interactive training in general and, again, telling someone they are wrong or have something who does not go. with them only increases the defensive. It could even be argued that this is another form of discrimination.
3. Throw unqualified coaches into difficult situations.
In the world of coaching, prospecting for potential clients for diversity training has really become like gold hunting in the Old West: seducing opportunists with more ambition than common sense. Therefore, the market is flooded with questionable trainers. When they don’t know what they’re doing, things can go wrong pretty quickly. A recent case of disastrous training for city workers in Austin, TX was such an unfortunate event.
What does it work?
I agree that a few formations that take an “indoctrination” approach not only do not work, but can also backfire dramatically. Trump’s own reaction to these failed diversity trainings is a prime example of this hidden danger.
However, there are effective – and yes, entirely American – approaches to achieving the inclusion goals that are essential for our beautiful country. These types of well-received training involve two inseparable stages that are two sides of the same coin for a good education: storytelling and understanding.
My colleague, business school mate and friend Charles Henderson was a heroin addict and convicted felon before getting a second chance at life, he earned his associate degree, entered the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and then earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. During nearly 30 years of working in post-apartheid South Africa, Charles has led his own incredible life story to foster understanding and reconciliation in businesses and schools where he conducts trainings on leadership, diversity and inclusion. He urges DE&I training participants to share their stories and tell each other about their challenges and triumphs. Charles found this narrative approach to be very effective and the only one that leads to true understanding and greater cohesion among colleagues. And studies have shown he was right.
It is important to reintegrate diversity training right away, but also to fix what is not working. Trying to understand each other better is not “anti-American,” as Trump and others in his administration have argued. In fact, this is the best route to his stated goal of restoring American greatness.
Susan S. Harmeling is Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, expert in business ethics and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group.