The Diversity and Inclusion learning journey

Asif Sadiq MBE Influencer

Vice President | Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at adidas | Author | LinkedIn Influencer | Board Member | Fellow | TEDx Speaker

From Harvard research to Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) articles, wherever you look, you'll find articles proving that one-off unconscious bias and diversity training do not work. Yet many organisations continue to try to deliver the cliché half-day “Unconscious Bias” training with the hope that it will fix biases within the workplace.

The reality is that one-off half-day training courses like these do not embed change and whilst they might appear to change behaviors, they only do so for a short period of time. Research has proven that individuals will revert back to “normal” after a few months, days or even hours. Unconscious Bias training by itself also runs the risk of alienating people as there is sometimes a feeling that training points fingers at certain groups or people who are at a certain level to D&I understanding – mainly at the basic stages.

However, this doesn’t mean we should shy away from training around D&I, in fact we should do the opposite and create a journey of learning that creates behavioral change and supports people regardless of their level/rank, or understanding of the simple concepts of D&I. Just as racial justice and education is not a pit stop but a journey, we should view D&I training in the same way if we are going to have a long term impact on creating true inclusion in the workplace.

Having worked with companies like EY, The Telegraph and more recently, in adidas as Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, I've observed patterns and strategies that have helped employees to embark on a mindful journey towards inclusion and create long term sustainable change through creating a road map of continuous learning activities, that supports teams across any business.

For corporate DEI training to be effective, it has to be both long-lasting, encourage a change in behaviour and more importantly it has to be relevant to each and every team across your business, for it to add value and support an organizations D&I ambitions.

Therefore, the first criterium for any training to work is to make it part of your employees' career journey with you. Ask yourself what would work best for your environment, because just like everyone's educational journey is different, so is every individual’s journey within a company. Here are five strategies that I've applied working with global companies and the best-practices we've brought in that will hopefully jumpstart a sustainable DEI journey for your teams, too:

1. Offer a variety of learning formats

We need to remember that everyone learns differently. Not everyone consumes knowledge through traditional taught learning. Some prefer visual learning, some articles and some, team exercises. To make your DEI training effective for every single one of your employees, involve diverse learning styles into your training - this includes classroom, self-taught, or experiential learning.

While during this lockdown, training might look like a combination of pre-class learnings through videos, articles, or podcasts followed by team exercises over virtual platforms, in a life post-COVID, training can also include taking your companies leaders to visit a community organisation that supports diverse groups. The benefit of this means that even your senior leadership start to learn through experience what the daily life of a diverse group looks like.

2. Remove hierarchies

For inclusion training to work, every single person in your team must be involved in the learning experience equally. There shouldn't be a difference between the training material your Board members, corporate or retail staff receive - your inclusion training has to be inclusive of all staff.

As soon as you differentiate between levels, departments or environments, you will lose message consistency and learning effectiveness. This means also the executive team should be part of the learning sessions just like everybody else. Enable different team member to volunteer to lead one of the team sessions, so that every single person feels responsible to lead a topic and promote conversation, rather than one person leading and others listening. This encourages accountability as well and reinforces the fact that there is no hierarchy in learning about DEI.

3. Long-term behavioural changes

Most of the time, unconscious bias or diversity training is not effective, because they are one-off seminars. To change behaviours in the long run, both within and across teams, you should create a sequence of training exercises that span over a period time. For instance, at adidas we have separated the corporate DEI training into pre-work, live exercises, and post-work. The most important part of the journey was to learn with each other during the live exercises.

It gave us all a chance to be open and transparent in a safe space and for this to work, psychological safety was crucial. According to Amy Edmondson, an American scholar of leadership, teaming, and organisational learning, psychological safety is "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” And so it’s imperative, to create many opportunities where you have an environment where everyone feels comfortable to learn, share and discuss and which allows teams to openly address unique challenges they face in their work with each other.

4. Extend your training time-period

Think about studying any module at school or University. It usually takes a few months to understand the principles, right? Similarly, to enable long-term behavioural change - you'll need to span your DEI learning over a period of time, training should be a journey from anything from six months to twenty four months to truly start to embed Inclusive behaviors.

The intention is to get people into the habit of learning. You don't want to start and stop at the basics of what diversity means but address different diversity dimensions at team levels and double down your efforts on specific areas of diversity, . This creates an environment for teams to understand that learning goes on beyond just an hour. Learning shouldn't stop, it should be a continuous process and one that is tailored at a team level.

5. Rethink your source of education

When creating the content around your team's learning, use a lot of open-source learning elements such as articles, TED talks, exercises, and gamification. DEI is a complex topic, with many different opinions, experts, views, and perceptions. Rather than finding “the perfect” solution, bring in diverse viewpoints and elements to create conversation. This prompts dialogue and conversation. You want to ensure that you don't just focus on scholarly education but you bring in the reality of the world that you operate in. This can often result in disengagement too.

What spans through all the five aspects of what I believe makes an effective diversity training program is that the concept of learning is a team exercise.

At adidas we put these principles in play and designed a global learning program, creating a culture of inclusion- team workout, because, if you want to run any race or take part in any sports, even the top athletes, the ones that are the best at their game work to broaden their capabilities and strengthen their skills. In a team workout, just like in any sport when teams get together to practice and strategize gameplay, you can point out each other's weaknesses, learn from each others strengths and come together to perform at your best as a team and ultimately, play at your best.

Training should always be an ongoing effort. Learning is continuous. To be successful as a company, you need to embed learning in the long run and allow different teams to learn at their individual pace and after they have learnt the basic elements of D&I, teams can then double down on where the gaps are within their teams and continue their diversity, equity and inclusion journey.