Forward-looking organizations have not just focused on survival during the pandemic. They have also been rethinking EDI, an acronym (sometimes DEI) used to describe initiatives that aim to increase diversity across the organization while also achieving a state of equity and inclusion.
The immediate objective is to meet increased public expectations related to battling bias and social inequalities in the workplace. But rethinking EDI amid changing social consciousness is more than good policy in the age of stakeholder capitalism—it’s good for business, at least when done right.
Unfortunately, when it comes to driving EDI in the workplace, past practices get mixed reviews, especially when it comes to inclusion—the most elusive of EDI’s three interrelated goals.
When formulating EDI strategies, organizations naturally turn to training programs. But while well-intentioned, past training efforts have frequently fallen short of expectations. Some have even done more harm than good, particularly when delivered in a “checkbox” fashion with a limited focus and timeline. According to a 2016 analysis of 260 EDI training programs over 40 years published by the American Psychological Association, past training efforts have backfired by reinforcing stereotypes and creating more bias. Participants often become resentful over being told how to think and behave, so they resist.
The good news is that this research also identified some keys to success. EDI training, for example, appears to be most impactful when complemented by other initiatives; targeted to both awareness and skill development; and conducted over a significant period of time, while being championed across all levels of an organization. The most enlightening of the lessons learned is that EDI goals can be achieved through multiple programs that have various other purposes.
Based on our own experience helping companies implement holistic EDI programs that focus on behavioural patterns, this paper aims to help employers implement training efforts that can make the difference between meeting today’s elevated expectations and falling short by focusing only on select characteristics like race and gender.
EDI and Increased Expectations
Vernā Myers, VP of inclusion strategy at Netflix, is a respected thought leader on EDI. But prior to the pandemic, Myers opened a can of worms—albeit a constructive one—when she coined the saying, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
After watching this quote spread across social media, Daniel Juday, another EDI professional, respectfully took issue with what he considered to be a dangerous oversimplification. Taking care to point out that he might be “reading too deeply into something not built to be analyzed,” Juday posted a commentary on LinkedIn that suggested organizations should stop using Myers’s phrase as an endgame statement.
Entitled “Inclusion Isn’t Being Asked to Dance,” Juday’s article pointed out that the Myers quote uses passive constructions, noting “there is an implication of someone else (not referenced directly in the statement) doing the inviting, and doing the asking.” Putting his concerns into corporate terms, Juday warned that this implies diversity and inclusion is about organizational leaders “deigning to include others in their circles for brief moments, usually in celebrative ways rather than strategic ones.”
In addition to a back-and-forth discussion with Myers, Juday’s article spawned an online debate that attracted diverse views on how best to articulate the objectives of EDI, and the spin off versions of the original quote that followed showed how diversity of thought leads to better outcomes. The most notable change being that inclusion is now frequently described as being part of the party planning process and having an equal opportunity to pick the dance music.
In many Canadian organizations, there is a push to expand EDI terminology to include indigeneity and decolonization to reflect and honour the unique history and issues facing Indigenous people and other equity-deserving groups who have a past steeped in colonization. However, because this is an evolving term, we will limit our phrasing to EDI, with an understanding that strong EDI programs must include discussions and training on indigeneity and decolonization.
For the purposes of this paper, we use the following definitions:
EQUITY is the existence of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all in an environment that works to continually identify and eliminate barriers that have historically prevented the full participation of some groups.
DIVERSITY is the presence within the organization of differences including, but not limited to, race, colour, ethnicity, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, age, gender, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, and mental or physical ability.
INCLUSION is the authentic participation of traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups in an organization’s processes, practices, activities, and decision making, which ensures equal access to opportunities and resources.
EDI programs have been around for decades, driven by a combination of social activism and research that highlights the potential for bottom-line improvements. For example, a 2015 McKinsey report entitled “Why Diversity Matters” found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Other pre-pandemic research by Deloitte found that diverse companies have nearly two-and-a-half times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies.
What makes EDI so beneficial to the bottom line? Simply put, the research consistently shows that when you have a more diverse group of individuals at the table, freely expressing different perspectives that are heard and appreciated, you improve organizational decision making and innovation, along with the ability to attract talent, by improving employee productivity, engagement, and job satisfaction (see Happiness and Productivity: Understanding the Happy-Productive Worker by Daniel Sgroi).
However, it is important to note that achieving the economic benefits of EDI while meeting expectations for making the workplace a fair, welcoming, and safe environment—where everyone is valued and people can openly share who they are, every day—is easier said than done, especially today. Prior to the public protests sparked by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in the United States, most companies actively recognized the impact of inequality in society by voicing support for the MeToo movement, LGBTQ+ communities, and Black Lives Matter. But few recognized the need to walk the talk internally much more seriously.
Now, amid increased expectations and changing social consciousness, employers have committed to EDI initiatives like never before, increasing demand for EDI training programs that have a poor record of meeting yesterday’s lower level of expectations.
Rethinking EDI Training
The irony of most EDI training conducted to date is that it teaches us to view one another in generalized groups of skin colour, age, and sexual preference. EDI is indeed about ensuring all employees are free to work and develop professionally (based on their inherent human potential), while feeling a sense of belonging in the collective purpose and processes. But to have a real and lasting impact, EDI programs should focus on more than obvious attributes, like race and gender.
In our work, we focus EDI training programs on how people behave. Keep in mind that people have different behavioural styles, but when working with someone different, we don’t typically adapt our behaviour to work effectively with them. We simply expect others to do things in ways that meet our needs and preferences. This isn’t intentional. We do this because of unconscious bias. Nevertheless, when our default is to always expect to work in ways that appeal to our own behavioural styles and strengths, our working relationships are not optimized. When in default mode, our behaviour can also be interpreted in ways that we don’t intend—causing confusion and making others feel disrespected, unheard, or frustrated.
“I’m not biased,” wrongly said almost everyone.
“I’m not biased,” wrongly said almost everyone. Recognized or not, biases exist in everyone, including people who are supposed to be impartial, like judges. And our biases are not limited to race, ethnicity, or gender. Every day an average human brain is bombarded with 11 million bits of information. To manage it all, we unconsciously create mental divisions and categories that form prejudices in favour of, or against, things, people, or groups, compared to other things, people, or groups. These biases are based on our personal experiences—where we grew up, for example—and they can lead to positive outcomes, but negative consequences are more likely.
If your age is the same as the person standing next to you, should I put you both in the same category? No, doing so would be superficial. Nevertheless, our brains make superficial judgments all the time, ranking items as good, bad, or other based on our biases. And we all bring our biases to work.
Understanding the pervasiveness of biases and how they impact our thinking and behaviour can help us try to moderate how we act and communicate, which is why introspection and implicit bias tests are used to detect the strength of a person’s automatic associations between mental representations. These tests can examine biases related to gender, race, marital status, disabilities, and myriad other topics. For example, you may take a test that asks questions designed to gain a sense of how you react to gender differences in an organization or the environment around you.
But introspection and implicit bias tests don’t eliminate biases or help us avoid falling into the judgment trap. It happens like this: Whenever we interact with another person, the emotional part of our brain engages before the logical part, and unconscious biases immediately bubble up. As a result, we assign traits to others that often say more about ourselves and the lens we look through. Take eye contact. Despite a lack of supporting research, more than a few people believe avoiding eye contact is a sign of dishonesty, so they immediately distrust someone who doesn’t look them in the eye.
Because everyone makes snap judgments and categorizes others, we need to be more contemplative when interacting with others. This is where the rational part of our brain needs to come into play. Indeed, to form effective working relationships, it is crucial to be mindful of both our verbal and non-verbal behaviours. After all, as highlighted in the book The Versatility Factor by John R. Myers and Henning Pfaffhausen, the content of what we communicate makes up only 14 per cent of the impact we have when interacting with others—the rest of the impact, 86 per cent, comes from how we speak, write, or act.
Unfortunately, thanks to self-perception bias, few people have an accurate internal gauge of how they come across to other people. According to a report by the TRACOM Group—which helps people develop their emotional and social intelligence skills to facilitate organizational change via behavioural change—only about a third of humans realize how they come across to other people.
Simply put, our brains make false assumptions about others and how others view our own behaviour all the time. This limits the effectiveness of working relationships, and we can’t stop it. But we can address the issue by not trying to read other people’s thoughts and by focusing on how we interact, which can help counter biases related to gender, age, and other judgment-inducing characteristics.
“Observing the surface behaviours of others while not trying to read their thoughts can help us avoid falling into the judgment trap.”
Think of human behaviour in terms of an iceberg. What people say and do sits above the water, open for others to observe. But our ideas, beliefs, values, dreams, and attitudes—along with all the other things that form our personality and biases—remain hidden, sometimes deeply, below the surface. As a result, trying to figure out what makes another person “tick” is extremely difficult, even for a psychologist. But it is possible to identify the basic behavioural patterns that everyone displays, regardless of race, gender, age, and everything else. And identifying them can help us work with others in more effective ways.
According to the research behind the TRACOM SOCIAL STYLE model, 75 per cent of people with whom you interact have a different behavioural pattern or “Social Style.”
Imagine boarding an airplane and finding someone in the seat you think was assigned to you. Moods and other factors come in to play, but how you react is largely based upon your Social Style. Some of us will respond very directly, having no problem saying: “You’re in my seat and need to move.” This is a Driving Style behavioural pattern, and people who behave this way are “telling” and “controlling.”
Others fall into the Expressive Style camp, which is also direct, but more declarative, and involves “telling” and “emoting.” Instead of issuing an order to move, an individual in this group might share their boarding pass and explain why they belong in the seat in question.
A third behavioural pattern is the Amiable Style, which entails “asking” and “emoting.” Rather than directly approaching the individual assumed to be sitting in the wrong seat, they’ll ask a flight attendant to step in, aiming not to appear rude or create a damaged relationship.
Finally, some individuals have an Analytical Style, which is somewhat direct but more exacting than the Driving Style or Expressive Style. Someone from this group is “asking” and “controlling,” so they might address the situation by asking to compare boarding passes.
Simply put, by observing how people behave—quiet or loud; fast or slow; controlled or emoting; formal or laid-back—we can leverage social intelligence and begin to lay a foundation for building more effective working relationships.
TRACOM SOCIAL STYLE® MODEL
TRACOM’s experience conducting millions of Social Style assessments has found that individuals tend to see themselves differently from how others see them. So, as shown in the graphic above, while you might think you have an Analytical Style, others might see you as having an Amiable Style. That gap is our self-perception bias in action. As a result, leveraging social intelligence to measure our behaviours based on how others view them is an eye-opener—and a powerful way to begin EDI training.
In addition to self-awareness, social intelligence training can help those with each of the four Social Styles described above make adjustments that can enable people to interact more effectively, more empathetically, and more transparently. Keep in mind that people with different styles have different methods of making decisions, using their time, and approaching tasks, and this diversity of approaches can help make companies more effective. But these different styles also create friction and misunderstandings.
Focusing EDI training on behaviours moves people to cut each other some slack and say, “We’re all learning how to best get along, and we’re going to make mistakes.” Everyone knows the Golden Rule that says, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Leveraging social intelligence training in EDI programs bumps that up a notch, forming a new “Platinum Rule” for interacting—which is “treat others the way they want to be treated.”
Everyone knows the Golden Rule that says, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Leveraging social intelligence training in EDI programs bumps that up a notch, forming a new “Platinum Rule” for interacting—which is “treat others the way they want to be treated.”
By developing tolerance toward the behaviours of others and managing our own reactions to people who are different, we develop more versatility in our behavioural patterns. In TRACOM training programs, versatility is measured through presentation, competence, and feedback. Presentation is how organized your thoughts are before they are offered to others; competence is your level of conscientiousness, reliability, and perseverance; and feedback is actively listening, seeing things from another’s point of view, and responding appropriately.
Since behavioural versatility leads to better listening and communicating—along with increased acceptance of individual backgrounds, experiences, and perceptions—we can’t stress enough the importance of developing it through social intelligence. In our experience, leaders who score well in versatility are better at recognizing the contributions of all employees; understanding the experiences of others from their perspectives; and valuing different opinions. As a result, they have significantly higher performance ratings related to how well they coach other people and work with direct reports. This helps teams to be more effective, and ensures that all people are heard and respected, while opening the door to diverse insights and perspectives that might otherwise be closed off.
EDI programs can enable employers to meet the increased public demand for fair and equitable workplaces while also reaping the economic benefits of diversity. But EDI training works best as part of a larger initiative, aimed at developing relationship skills and changing attitudes, which is why progressive companies are rethinking EDI training to reach beyond skin colour, sexual preference, age, and other attributes that can cause us to judge and marginalize others.
By deploying Social Style training to focus on behaviours, organizations empower people to recognize how their perceived strengths can actually impede their relationships with co-workers, while moving them to appreciate diversity of thought and behaviour, from the outside in. This counters the unfounded judgments that our brains make in the name of efficiency, and thus enables us to interact more respectfully and effectively.
As author Sukhraj Dhillion put it, “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behaviour does.”
- Katerina Bezrukova, Chester S. Spell, Jamie L. Perry, and Karen A. Jehn, “A Meta-Analytical Integration of Over 40 Years of Research on Diversity Training Evaluation,” Psychological Bulletin 142, no. 11 (2016): 1227–1274.
- Vivian Hunt, Denise Layton, and Sara Prince, “Why Diversity Matters,” McKinsey & Company, 2015.
- “High Impact Talent Management Research,” Bersin by Deloitte, 2015.
- Daniel Sgroi, Happiness and Productivity: Understanding the Happy-Productive Worker (Social Market Foundation, 2015).
- John R. Myers and Henning Pfaffhausen, The Versatility Factor (Book Press Publishing, 2016).
- TRACOM, SOCIAL STYLE® & Versatility Technical Report (2019).
- TRACOM, The Relationship Between Versatility and Diversity (2011).