Good intentions and detours on the road to diversity

by: in Law

Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev’s new book, Getting to Diversity, offers data-backed evidence to substantiate what I have long suspected to be true: Many diversity and inclusivity trainings (e.g. mandatory implicit bias training, active allyship training, etc.) not only have little to no effect, but they may be detrimental to actually achieving D&I goals. Dobbin and Kalev’s latest work is specific to American businesses and D&I initiatives that mostly target management, but it appears that there is now an emerging consensus among academics that this may be the case in other contexts too.

The issue of proper motivation, the authors contend, may be one of the main culprits to the ineffectiveness of these policies and practices: For instance, when institutions adopt these D&I measures, not because of their moral convictions, but simply because they want to minimize their liability (e.g. avoiding discrimination litigations or negative publicity), things generally do not go as intended. In fact, these initiatives can end up decreasing the percentage of minorities represented in management or worse. Similarly, if these trainings are unilaterally imposed upon those that are not really willing to participate intrinsically, the impact can also be aggressively unfruitful.

I’ve long suspected this to be the case because we have witnessed similar phenomenon elsewhere: Laws that extrinsically compel businesses to be more sustainable sometimes backfire by harming businesses actually trying to be sustainable. Mental health awareness initiatives intended to destigmatize mental health issues may possibly generate more mental health problems. Protective parenting may deprive children of meaningful challenges that end up creating more harm for kids when they are older, and so on. All examples of good intentions gone bad.

To be clear, this is not an argument to do away with D&I trainings all together or for legislatures to stop promulgating laws that promote sustainability. Instead, the intention here is to remind us – especially those in leadership – to pause and reflect on what we are actually doing. Dobbin and Kalev’s work validate that compelling staff members to just take more and more courses in the hopes that they will be better allies, teachers, or leaders – however well-intended – may not have the desired effect, absent intrinsic and authentic motivation of the participants.

So the relevant question becomes, how do organizations and their leaders foster the right kind of motivation to nurture a diverse workspace where its inhabitants feel a genuine sense of belonging? Dobbin and Kalev’s work suggests that adhering to the three principles of engagement, contact, and social accountability will more likely produce successful outcomes than through imposition and dominance (e.g. mandatory imposition of such policies). Engagement and contact are about those in leadership interacting – in a meaningful way (e.g. through thoughtful recruitment and mentoring) – with those in the minority. (Here, the adage of not compelling those who do not want to mentor to mentor applies). Social accountability is to be clear and public about the institution’s D&I aims and to be vocal about it so that in the event of inevitable shortcomings, the organization can address their failures in a transparent and collaborative manner. (And yes, the shortcomings will be inevitable because these issues are so dynamic and constantly evolving so it is difficult to stay ahead of everything).

What I take away from these findings is that institutional change cannot be accomplished merely through additional staff trainings or leadership simply pronouncing pleasantries that are in trend with the times. Rather, meaningful diversity and inclusivity comes as a result of people investing their time and effort into having difficult conversations with others, especially with those that they do not see eye to eye with. To better facilitate this, we also need to be more conscious about actively creating mixed and diverse groups within the organization and not succumb to the excuse that “talented minority candidates just aren’t out there”. Only through these purposeful interventions that go deep beneath the surface can we grow into more diverse and truly inclusive organizations. Everything else, as evidenced by Dobbin and Kalev, is merely cosmetic.

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