When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

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2 responses to “When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

  1. Focusing on excellence is the best way to to create a productive environment. I my view, excellence trumps biases and most discrimination. Although many people never outgrow their biases, they do learn and know who can do what in an organization. Focusing on excellence focuses people on process, progress, and positive outcomes/results. Knowing when to say NO is a vital trait and necessary to lead people to new levels of productivity, innovation, and excellence.

  2. I saw you at Festival of the Book this afternoon. The bad news is that, alas, I do not see you as a heretic as you did not get burnt at the stake, but rather (through your sense of timing and elegance of implementation) rose quite high. And I do not see you as a rebel as such because you more wisely resisted rather than foolishly and counter-productively rebeling. That said, I do see you as a heroine, both for women and for us overly sincere guys who also believe that there is a need for those who see the best for their organizations to not give up in the face of stone deaf and blind opposition from powers that be set in stone but eventually may become more flexible.

    Warmest regards, YaleLandsberg@gmail.com Cville

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