Learn by Doing: Diversity

Diversity training for the corporation has the potential to transcend the few moments of awkward silence that usually accompany a presentation of corporate policy covering political correctness and expected behavior.

Those who do not experience a negative response to their identity expressions often find such issues to be invisible, unrecognizable, and even irrelevant. Thus the time spent learning about multiculturalism often does little more than alienate those who don’t consider themselves to be racist and demonstrate to minorities that they truly face an impossible situation. The resources and ideas that follow suggest a more effective method inspiring a multicultural work place.

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Instead of a passive transfer of knowledge from an expert to the student, the Learn By Doing: Diversity seminar experience requires active participation in the process of creating (Bloom et. al., 1956), testing, applying, and reflecting on the foundational thought processes that either empower or hinder the growth of a multicultural mindset. The fundamental theories guiding this experience are diversity self-efficacy and the transtheoretical model of personal transformation set in a context of relationships and practice to maximize learning accessibility and transfer.

Multiculturalism is not a set of information, but an evolving way of life. Through active participation in this training program, individuals develop tools, incentives, and experiences that will launch their own journeys toward multicultural ways of thinking and acting. It is this kind of mindset shift that has the potential to empower corporate policies around diversity to actually have an effect on the people they were meant to address.

Multiculturalism is not a set of information, but an evolving way of life.

Target Audience

Lasting change begins and ends with the individual. According to critical race theory as outlined by Ladson-Billings (1995) every person is racist or at least participates in racism on some level. Therefore every individual has the responsibility as well as the potential to end it. This idea can be extended to multiple aspects of social injustice in which most leaders are neither willing nor knowing participants. As Scheurich and Young have pointed out, most levels of racism are invisible (1997). Racism at the individual level like slurs and stereotypes is easy to reject, but few people recognize that they participate in other types of racism through institutional policies, expectation of norms and habits, or even ways of viewing the world. Because these grow from underlying thought patterns and beliefs (Spradley, 1997), the solution to the problem must begin with an internal shift in the thought processes of people who can influence their environment.

Learn By Doing: Diversity builds on this idea to provide a new model of diversity training for mid- to high-level leaders in medium to large companies with at least 200 employees. This population is already aware that there may be benefits to diversity, but Kochan et al (2003) has warned that without developing “leadership and process skills that can facilitate effective group functioning” the benefits of diversity may never show themselves. In fact without proper guidance, diversity may turn into an uncomfortable source of tension. A positive perspective toward diversity is irrelevant if there are no processes in place to train individuals how to recognize and manage it. For this reason, the seminar outlined here does not attempt to sell the idea of diversity, but assumes that everyone will encounter diversity and should know how to deal with it effectively.

Currently, the way many leaders deal with diversity is through the dangerous method of colorblindness. They refuse to notice the difference in race, gender, socio-economic status and any other characteristic that differentiates one individual from another. As Nieto and Bode pointed out (2008), colorblindness is not always a bad thing. However, a failure to notice differences is not the same thing as valuing all of the differences the same, and this will not happen without an intentional confrontation of invisible institutional, social, and civilizational levels of cultural bias. Though their efforts may be misdirected, the theoretical value that these individuals and their organizations have for diversity puts them in a favorable place to encounter a more effective means of turning theory into practice.

Objectives of the Program

Learn By Doing: Diversity was designed to teach leaders how to communicate and collaborate across cultural boundaries and help others do the same. The goal of the seminar at the heart of this program is to inspire the process of multiculturalism. It doesn’t have to produce a drastic change, just a subtle shift in mindset that opens the individual to recognize and embrace multicultural differences. Over time, this change in thinking will lead to noticing, caring about, and addressing institutional barriers and creating an environment in which those around them begin to recognize and value the benefits of diversity. This can create a trickle-down effect where more individuals begin to value the development and expression of individuality in unique ways both inside and outside the workplace.

Because the approach is built around developing solutions for thought processes rather than behaviours, it has the potential to disrupt the current cultural dialogue by speaking to the heart of the issue: how people think about diversity. Differences will always exist, but the way that people respond to them determines whether a diverse culture is harmful or beneficial to its members. deMello-e-Souza Wildermuth & Wildermuth (2011) have suggested that individuals are primed to notice the differences between each other, but have a much more difficult time finding the commonalities. This program takes advantage of this natural tendency by equipping people to appreciate and remain open to these different ways of knowing, encountering, and relating (Scheurich & Young, 1997) to the world around them. It is the first step in the process of personal transformation for diversity.

Diversity Training as a Process of Personal Transformation

In order to understand diversity training as a process of personal transformation, the five stages of Prochaska & Diclemente’s 2005 Transtheoretical Model of Transformation were chosen as a framework for the program: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance (pp. 149,150). Most of the individuals participating in this seminar will not be aware of what the issue of diversity actually is. Distracted by external overt behaviour, they fail to recognize that they might actually be endorsing the mindsets that lead to such behaviour (precontemplation). The first goal of this program is to solve this problem by raising awareness that differences exist and have a profound impact on the way that people experience the world (contemplation).

This prepares them for the second part of the process: developing a plan for valuing and collaborating with these differences in a way that is positive (preparation), and then actively testing the effectiveness of their strategies (action). Kochan et al, 2003, reported that diversity training programs which outline the issues seldom lead to long term changes in attitudes or behavior. A 2007 study by Combs and Luthans explained this by showing how good intentions without the ability to act stops the growth of encouraged behavior. They borrowed from Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy to show that people will be more likely to embrace ideas they can execute than ones they can do nothing about. Nothing is accomplished by raising awareness of the differences if people cannot figure out how to engage with them on a personal level.

According to the theory of diversity self-efficacy, individuals who are equipped to engage through the application of some process or tool will be more confident in their ability to achieve the objectives of diversity. Once they know how they can respond to the differences, they will be ready to recognize that they exist (Combs & Luthans, 2007). Individuals fear what they don’t know or understand (deMello-e-Souza Wildermuth & Wildermuth, 2011). When they become familiar with both differences and the process of working with them, the practice of diversity becomes less intimidating.

An emphasis on reflection accompanies each stage in the process of transformation to solidify the value of the process (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). In this way the process is abstracted into a cycle that can continue once they are removed from the artificial environment of the training setting (maintenance). Thus, the guiding feature of this program is its emphasis on developing a process that can be maintained. By equipping individuals with a process to manage their encounter with diversity, they will be more likely to let themselves recognize and confront the issues that exist. In this way, multiculturalism transcends the realm of abstract thought to become a way of viewing and interacting with the world.

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