Making your diversity training effective

Is your diversity training getting the results you want?

Before you answer that, let me overview the SCARF model developed by David Rock of the Neuroleadership Group in 2008.  SCARF is defined as “a brain-based model for collaborating and influencing others.”

Fundamental to the model are two researched-based themes:

  • The primary organizing principle of the brain is – Minimize Danger, Maximize Reward
  • Several domains of social experience utilize the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks used for primary survival needs, e.g. food and water.

SCARF itself refers to a framework of five domains of experience that can trigger reward and threat responses in social situations:

  • Status: Our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: Our ability to predict the future
  • Autonomy: Our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: Our perceptions that exchanges between people are fair

Knowing these drivers as significant influencers on threat or reward responses can help us design effective interactions (like training programs, for example).  Knowing, for example, that a lack of autonomy activates a threat response can help avoid interactions based on micromanaging.  Threat responses are usually more powerful than reward responses, i.e. we move away from threats more rapidly and more vigorously than we do moving toward rewards.  When we design interactions, we should increase our efforts on generating reward responses, and be more careful in avoiding threat responses.

What has diversity training got to do with this? Strategy + Business published an article by David Rock (“Is Your Company’s Diversity Training Making You More Biased?”) in which he draws on an important study of the often-negative impacts of 830 mandatory diversity training programs (“Why Diversity Programs Fail,” by professors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, Harvard Business Review.  The authors of the study say, “Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory [diversity] courses with anger and resistance, and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.”

What Rock does in his article is to connect his work on SCARF to the diversity backlash.

Two groups in one study were asked to read an antiprejudice essay.  One group was an autonomy group and they read an essay emphasizing individual choice, and that open-mindedness is a more joyful way to live.  The control group read an essay emphasizing that discrimination is prohibited or we must stop negative stereotyping.  Before and after reading the essays, participants took a multiple-choice exam designed to test their biases.  As expected, participants who read the autonomy essay displayed, less prejudice, but participants who read the control essay tended to test more prejudiced than they had before.  The researchers called this a “counter-response to threated autonomy.”  Employees needed to feel they were freely choosing to be non-prejudiced rather than feeling forced.  As Rock says, “You can’t eliminate bias by outlawing it.”

Perceived threats to Autonomy and choice are one reason for the diversity backlash.  Another important factor is Relatedness (group membership).  There is a tribal aspect to human nature that divides the world into “Us” versus “Them”.  As Rock says, “That tendency is so ingrained that dividing people into groups leads to individuals to discriminate against out-group members even when the division is based on something as arbitrary as a coin toss.”

In a NYU study, social neurologist Jay Van Bavel randomly assigned people to two arbitrary mixed race teams. What they found was when people perceive one another as members of the same in-group (e.g. a global team), racial bias is less. The main criteria is you are one of us.

The messages of multiculturalism and inclusion can be perceived as a threat and, therefore, have the opposite effect to the one intended.  Rather than just promote well-meaning messages, efforts should be made to create teams whose members have value to one another because they are part of the same in-group, i.e. they share a common identity by pursuing the same interests and goals.

These findings don’t make diversity training counter-productive as-long-as it triggers reward rather than threat responses.  Threat responses in diversity training can be triggered in many ways including making it mandatory, giving the impression that the diversity training is remedial, shaming and blaming groups (white men or men in general), or highlighting legal consequences to the company.

Creating diverse in-groups (teams) can be the most powerful intervention.  I remember asking my son, a former Marine, about bias in the military.  He laughed, and said “You are not going to discriminate against someone fighting alongside you.  Your life can depend on that person.  In the Marines, we were all green.”

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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