Nearly all Fortune 500 companies report using mandatory diversity training. On its face, mandatory training seems like an ideal tool for creating sweeping change within an organization, as well as publicly communicating that diversity and inclusion are priorities. Yet data collected between 1970-2002 suggest that traditional mandatory trainings don’t work, and can even backfire: rather than increase diversity, mandatory training can make the workplace less diverse.

How can this be?

The finding

In 2016, sociologists Frank Dobbin (Harvard University) and Alexandra Kalev (Tel Aviv University) analyzed how diversity efforts at 829 firms in the United States changed hiring and promotion practices. Mandatory training proved to be among the least effective, and at times detrimental, actions. Companies that implemented mandatory diversity trainings saw no progress and even some decreases in the proportions of under-represented groups in management roles five years later: the proportion of Asian-Americans decreased by 4-5%, and the percentage of black women by 9% on average. In contrast, voluntary programs produced 9-13% increases in underrepresented groups in management across the board.

What’s wrong with traditional diversity training?

Here’s one theory: people don’t like being told what to do.

Many studies show that when freedom of choice is taken away, people push back, even when the task is in their interest (e.g., special fitness exercises). Psychologist Jack Brehm dubbed this phenomenon reactance. The Broadway musical The Fantasticks comically shows how powerful reactance can be: two neighboring fathers forbid their children from seeing each other, manufacturing a feud and even building a fence between their homes. The children rebel and fall in love – which was, of course, the fathers’ goal all along.

There’s another reason for why traditional diversity efforts may have failed: they were mind-numbing, even for the people who wanted to be there.

Canned bias trainings (particularly during the years covered in Dobbin and Kalev’s analysis) were often simplistic, boring, and full of moralistic finger-pointing. When packaged as “training” and made mandatory, they created a perfect cocktail for reactance. Indeed, Dobbin and Kalev reported that participants who felt infantilized or villainized often responded “with anger or resistance – [and] report[ed] more animosity toward other groups afterward.”

But don’t give up on teaching about bias! Instead, give up standard intuitions about what “training” should be, and use new approaches to create education that works.

Design smart, engaging, and scientifically-based seminars

How can we design education that makes people want to be there, and choose to learn? Here are some ideas:

  1. Try not to label what you do “training”. Call it what it is: an “education,” a “seminar”, a “workshop” designed to enhance your abilities and create paths to success.
  2. Don’t make it personal. Keep it professional. Don’t frame discussions about implicit bias as a moral issue (which is a personal matter). Rather, focus on the benefits of understanding implicit bias as a professional matter: spell out the costs to one’s work and organization that can come from ignoring the data about how our minds work.
  3. When possible, make programs voluntary. In our experience, diversity programs thrive when senior leaders indicate that they’ve attended the session and arranged for it to be made available for the rest of the organization.
  4. If the program is mandatory, don’t single out diversity. Include teaching about diversity with other onboarding experiences and opportunities for leadership development. Make “mandatory” mean “critical to development” rather than a requirement that needs to be checked off.
  5. Show how every group can benefit from better decision-making. We are all, in different contexts, the targets of biased perception (ask any male nurse) and the perpetrators of it (women can favor males to the same extent as men do).
  6. Make education about diversity smart. Base diversity programs on scientific evidence, and make sure that those leading your programs keep up with new evidence. You wouldn’t let a non-expert be involved in your core business or mission; apply the same philosophy to bias education.
  7. Infuse your program with humor. This topic can be hard to talk about. It is wrapped up in histories that are embarrassing and current events that strike a deep moral nerve. Along with data, use humor and human stories to create an engaging and persuasive experience.
  8. Talk about your own bias. Break the ice by speaking about the ways you’ve noticed your own bias, and the strategies you use to outsmart your mind. Especially do this if you are a senior leader.
  9. Keep going. Bias education is necessary, but not sufficient, for creating organizational change. Once topics are introduced, find ways to integrate interventions into everyday actions and the policies and procedures of your organization.

A parting thought

The conclusion that mandatory training doesn’t work was based on old-fashioned programs that were widely described as being unhappy experiences. In our experience, programs that weave together the science, the sharing of stories, and realistic solutions can turn many, including skeptics, into believers that diversity is a business imperative. These ideas are based on current knowledge of psychological reactance, and a look back at how mandatory policies have overcome it in the past (read the box below to see how doctors were convinced to wear gloves during surgery); we must wait to collect data to see how this new education will affect organizational behavior and outcomes.