How To Solve The Diversity Problem

(and no, we can’t send the entire world to diversity training)

Posted Feb 21, 2015

Diversity in groups, we are told, is something to be desired. But, like many areas in psychology, getting groups of people from very different backgrounds to work well together is a lot easier to say than it is to do. What is remarkable, though, is how often we are reminded of the challenges of ‘bringing people together’ despite all the good that might come of it. Let’s review how “diversity” has been in the news lately and how applying principles of psychology can help us interpret the diversity question.

Last August, a Ferguson, Missouri police officer shot and killed an unarmed black person. While there are anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand shootings, under all sorts of circumstances, by police nationally (the real number is up for debate), this case dominated media attention due to the racial difference between the white policeman, Darren Wilson, and Michael Brown, the black man who was shot. The follow-up civil unrest in Ferguson and elsewhere after the failure to indict the policeman amounted to a sociological faultline separating those arguing that what the policeman did was justified versus seeing Michael Brown as a victim. Is this a diversity issue?

Much of what is taught in diversity training focuses on understanding those of a different racial (or other) background; the stark differences in how white people and African-Americans see this case put a spotlight on the steep challenges of diversity education and training. For example, a majority (59%) of Whites has confidence in police, as opposed to 37% of African-Americans as a Gallup Poll showed this past June.  In November, another high-profile case occurred in New York when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, again spurring nationwide demonstrations.  

Friction between different groups of people isn’t, of course, limited to the United States or to police departments.  Dominating recent world headlines is the situation in France after radical Islamic terrorists massacred 12 staff members of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in response to cartoons depicting Muhammad. Such violence, while not unique (the same newspaper was bombed in 2011) is an extreme reaction to the friction between Western European culture, that values freedom of speech and press but where organized religion is not emphasized much today, and a Muslim culture that is offended by depictions of Muhammad (among many other ways these cultures clash). The most recent slayings in Denmark, purportedly inspired by the French attacks and in apparent response to a seminar on free speech, seem to continue these trends.

So where does this leave us? It seems silly and naive to suggest that diversity training courses could prevent another Charlie Hebdo tragedy, or even another Ferguson. Yet, what’s the alternative? Political leadership sadly seems lacking and ineffective at the moment. Witness the reactions to the New York mayor’s statements surrounding the shootings there and the resulting strained relationship with his own police department- they literally turned their back on him during a speech. So we wouldn’t necessarily look to political figures for answers in increasing tolerance of people (OK, it is easy to bash politicians these days). What we are left with are attempts, on the local level of individual schools, businesses and other organizations, to education people on how to understand people that may see things very differently. So, more than ever, we need good diversity training programs, and, naturally, much better research in what constitutes an effective diversity program.

In fact, diversity training programs have been scrutinized by psychologists recently (hundreds of programs have been reported in academic journals and have been subjected to summaries, or meta-analyses). One such study on multicultural education was done by Smith and his colleagues, another on diversity training was by Kalinoski and colleagues, we published a summary study on diversity training programs defined more broadly in the journal Academy of Management Learning and Education with our colleague Karen Jehn of Melbourne University. What we discovered was that some programs reported great results, others had no effect, others even backfired (people were actually more resentful of those different from them after the training, due to the way the training was delivered). One of our favorites here is by Baba & Herbert who found that a cultural awareness/diversity program administered to jail inmates as part of a post-release program in Santa Clara County (California) resulted in more negative intergroup relations and less tolerance towards people of other ethnic groups.

What’s a good training program? A lot of things you might think would make a difference don’t seem to - it doesn’t seem to matter whether people are required to attend training or volunteer for it. It also does not matter whether it is a diversity course in a university or a diversity training program in an organization, or whether it is just a lecture or a whole spectrum of different activities offered during the training. Yet, what matters most is how much it is complemented by other diversity initiatives (e.g., a social networking group of minority professionals, supported by the organization, is a follow-up outcome of a diversity course and also serves as a mentoring source). Also, classes and training programs that take an inclusive approach, emphasizing things we all have in common, may be better received by participants than those programs emphasizing how different we all are.

But while good research on diversity in teams actually can tell us a lot about how to approach this issue, we would suggest the leadership in implementing such programs will come from organizations of all types (public, private sector, corporations, schools) in designing and implementing effective programs, one at a time, to make people feel more comfortable in working with others that are different from themselves. Two things seems clear: there is no magic bullet to prevent another Charlie Hebdo or other tragedies, but we actually know a lot about how to put together diversity training programs that might help people at least tolerate one another a little better.

So, no, we can’t send the entire planet to diversity training. Plus, judging by the studies that have been done on such training, that might not be such a great idea either. But at this point, using sound techniques to nudge people to increase tolerance is all we have.

Written By Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova