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Fixing Diversity Programs – Diversity, Inclusion and Deliberate Practice

No one should be arguing against increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Strategically, ethically and financially it makes sense that organizations can benefit from being diverse. The return on investment (ROI) for a diverse workplace has been widely accepted by most CEOs and leaders and backed by studies with impressive statistics such as:

• A 1 percent increase in racial diversity leads to a 3 percent increase in profit.
• Organizations with the highest levels of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of racial diversity.
• Every 1 percent increase in gender diversity can increase revenue by 9 percent.
• Diverse teams outperform industry standards by 35 percent.

Despite the power of these statistics and potential bottom-line impact, the lack of success of the majority of Diversity and Inclusion Programs (D&I) has been a stellar disappointment. The needle is just not moving.

Why? It’s not from the lack of trying. Most large corporations have created positions, developed programs and spent significant funds. Most major D&I change programs begin with an awareness stage. Videos, corporate communications and workshops are the usual delivery systems. The purpose of the awareness stage is to define the challenge and set the goal to move toward. It’s an intellectual knowledge-transfer phase that is very important, and one that most organizations have completed.

The next step and biggest aspect of the diversity challenge is enabling individuals to effect change through their actions. How do individuals address a transgression when witnessed, how do they have that very difficult and potentially career-changing conversation? Organizations are relying on the same training approach they’ve relied on for the last 50 years, which unfortunately is actually making things worse. Focusing again on traditional “telling” knowledge-transfer training methodologies (workshops, how-to videos and e-learning) to reduce bias on the job, using hiring tests and performance ratings to encourage diversity in recruitment and promotions and grievance systems typically in place to give employees a way to challenge managers are all not working. Research shows that this type of forced one-way communication activates bias and does more damage than good.

One approach that seems to be gaining popularity and demonstrating success is creating a safe-practice environment to allow individuals the opportunity to say the wrong thing, to fail, to try the language recommended in training. It’s treating difficult diversity issues with a deliberate practice-based interpersonal communication solution. This tactic promotes removing harmful labels and focuses the individuals on listening, having authentic conversations, and increasing engagement.

It is very difficult to navigate a conversation with potential career-limiting outcomes without confidence in your abilities. Most people will remain silent and avoid the situation altogether, which of course supports the status quo and is a major reason why the stats are where they are currently. Practicing these conversations in a safe environment is how many other professionals learn to increase their skills (athletes, doctors, the military, lawyers, etc.). There is a growing movement in learning & development organizations to apply Deliberate Practice to leadership development, coaching, sales, and customer service. Employing Deliberate Practice can be the solution to move from theory to practice and overcome the “know-do” gap. Being able to say the words out loud that are feared most and to receive feedback in a safe, judgment-free environment will increase confidence and give participants the opportunity to correct and explore without consequences. The stakes are too high to implement a trial-and-error strategy in real life situations, and we know that people won’t risk it. Most people know how they should act, but are challenged by an actual conversation, out loud, in real-time.

The foundation of Deliberate Practice is to leverage existing knowledge (delivered via e-learning or workshops) and define the skills that are necessary for learners to be successful, so they have the opportunity to practice those skills in a safe environment. How the practice is conducted is critical. The skills should be practiced in context, as realistically as possible, and mixed or interleaved throughout several scenarios. Measuring skills during practice, and spacing the scenarios over several days or weeks to promote retention and reflection will ensure success. Using professional role-players to give participants feedback on how it felt to be in the conversation is a key element of implementing a Deliberate Practice solution. Nowhere is “how it comes across” more important than in D&I conversations. Practicing with and receiving feedback from peers can cause more problems and is certainly not considered safe practice.

If we consider Diversity & Inclusion a corporate culture issue, we can also apply Deliberate Practice to help influence how people interact with each other in a broader more positive way. The challenge with most culture change strategies is that they rely solely on the quality of the awareness message combined with artful delivery. An extensive global study by the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry found that “driving culture change” ranks among the top three global leadership development priorities, and suggests that leaders need to make culture change a more significant aspect of their development programs and overall leadership agenda. Most advice on how to drive culture focuses on content, context, personal development and storytelling. Unfortunately simply delivering the message or a “telling” approach, no matter how compelling, doesn’t result in real change. Integrating culture change issues such as diversity into Deliberate Practice scenarios for Leadership Development or Coaching programs gives learners the opportunity to integrate important change conversations into everyday circumstances via safe practice.

Designing and implementing Deliberate Practice is the last piece to the change puzzle whether it’s your Diversity & Inclusion program, leadership development, coaching or even customer service. Assuming that just telling everyone what they should do and how they should do it is all that needs to be done is the reason D&I programs are not working.
Randy Sabourin is the co-president of Practica Learning (formerly e-roleplay Inc) and co-founder of Anderson Sabourin Consulting (ASCI). Email Randy at

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