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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A beginner’s guide to running an effective workshop

Today, we want to discuss our approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training workshops. It’s an approach that informs the work we do with companies across South Africa, and our intention is that it’ll prove useful to you too - whether you’re in management, HR, or the C-Suite layer of the company. 

Our advice is based on the constants we’ve seen over the years, and is packed with tips we’ve seen work first-hand. 

Let’s get started.

1. Focus on the practical, not theoretical

Many companies face the same problem: they have perfect-sounding values, policies and PR practices but they’re removed from the day to day realities of DEI. Worse, no one is aligned to these values; staff and leaders are going along with what they’ve always known and always done.

It is possible to create alignment, however. What we’ve seen work is giving people exercises they can follow that gradually make them more self-aware and socially conscious. In much the same way you wouldn’t coach someone to drive on theory alone, it’s important to coach people to put DEI practices into everyday roles.

2. Reveal unconscious biases

One part of DEI training is unconscious bias awareness. Unconscious bias is also known as implicit bias, or implicit stereotyping. All of us have it, but your staff are liable to push back against this idea because they’re not aware of this fact.

In these instances, try this age-old riddle on for size: a father and a son are driving in a car when, suddenly, they get into an accident. They're both rushed to hospital, whereupon the boy requires surgery. The surgeon walks in and says, “That’s my son!”

The question is, who is the surgeon?

The answer, of course, is the mother, but a surprising number of people struggle to work this out. That’s because the word “surgeon” is synonymous in our culture with men; ditto for pilots and engineers. The reverse is true of nurses, care workers and so on.

Biases are preferences. We are drawn towards the familiar and we all think in a stereotypical way some of the time.

In our sessions, we like to reveal this reality through thought storytelling, thought experiments and games. We might say, “Choose from a list of ten people to perform X” task before analysing who is chosen and why. Or, we’ll ask people to imagine a Ted Talk speaker discussing a topic that’s stereotypically female, and reveal it to be a man.

The goal is to get people to realise they have biases and blindspots without telling them this is the case from the outset.

3. Consider the good-bad binary

You can easily trigger defensiveness in someone if you tell them point blank that they have unconscious biases. This is because we all like to believe that we’re equitable and fair. Robin DiAngelo calls it the good-bad binary. Our instinct is to believe that only “bad” people are biased, bigoted and prone to discrimination. The reality is that we all are, and this can be uncomfortable.

When we experience severe discomfort, our threat and stress response kicks into gear. Our defences are triggered, our thinking brain shuts off, and our fight or flight response takes over. We are now reacting rather than learning.

DEI training works best when you challenge people without triggering this defensiveness.

5. Focus on the decision-makers

Over the years, we’ve noticed that it’s most useful to centre DEI training on the people who have direct reports beneath them. There are a few reasons for this.

  • One, senior staff have decision-making power. In these cases, if biases are left to run rampant, it can fairly advantage one group of reports over another.

  • Two, managers are often in their position because they’re good at their job, not because they’re good managers. In earning a promotion, the very skills that got them the recognition are now less valuable. Instead, they need to hone their people skills.

  • Three, bad managers can do a lot of harm. Conversely, good managers can help a team rise up and become more than the sum of their parts.

  • Four, and perhaps most importantly, senior staff are role models - often without realising it. Their behaviours set a cultural tone that pervades a workplace. If you can change the culture of management within a company, direct reports will follow suit.

6. Decide whether you’re aiming for awareness - or a DEI journey

Our best learning experiences are continuous learning “journeys” where we touch base with a team or delegates over a series of months. But if you’re only planning on holding a single session, it’s best to think of this workshop as an awareness-building session. Here, the same principles apply: make it engaging, interactive and personable.

If your aim is to affect long-lasting behavioural change, we typically suggest an eight-month plan. Eight sessions (one a month) is, from our experience, right in the sweet spot.

7. Decide whether you’re looking at the micro or the macro

Our work can be broadly split into two: on the one hand, we’re dealing with the micro interactions that managers have with their reports; on the other, we’re dealing with the macro organisational headaches that a CEO is grappling with.

For the former, we’ll look at unconscious bias and decision making training to counteract unintentional favouritism and to create a culture of fairness going forward. After all, even the most well-meaning manager tries to leave their emotions and prejudices at the door without success.

For the latter, we’ll look at the bigger picture. One simple example is the way the building is laid out: are there wheelchair-accessible ramps and maternity facilities, for instance? It’s important to note that, in cases where there are not, it’s never enough to solve the problem as one goes along. If a CEO thinks like this, they’ll find excuses not to affect change. But if they want to present a fair, equitable, and quality organisation for the benefit of all, they’ll make the investment in the here and now to futureproof the building/facilities going forward.

Yes, it can mean a financial outlay, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Ultimately, you need diverse teams to be making decisions in the name of diversity. That’s because we all instinctively latch on to who and what they know and without a dynamic, multifaceted and multicultural team, it’s impossible to cater to all these disparate needs.

Yet with a diverse team in place, you’ll reap the benefits. Studies show that diversity makes us smarter and more productive.

If you’d like to know more about what we offer to business leaders and managers, follow the links to our brochures. And if you’d like our help, get in touch at Sometimes all you need is a fresh set of eyes.

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