This multipronged approach to DEI learning engages learners’ heads, hearts and hands to create a movement with staying power.
It is an understatement to say that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training is a complex and fraught topic. DEI sits at the intersection of issues that people in America continue to grapple with, including race, gender, sexual orientation, equity, power, privilege, income inequality, and opportunity, to name a few.
Given how sensitive these issues are, it is tempting for DEI educators to soft-pedal around difficult topics and hope that participants get it in their own time. This is a mistake. The value of DEI learning in the workplace lies in the collective insights, dialogue, and behavior change of the group and the organization over time. Educators cannot enable this change by skirting hard conversations. We need to confront difficult truths in a way that both engages and empowers participants to build something better for themselves and their colleagues.
At Grads of Life, we utilize a simple and effective framework to guide our design and delivery of DEI learning content. We call it the Head-Heart-Hand framework.
Engaging Participants’ Heads
Our consultancy ensures that all of our programming is informed by research. We reference and build upon a wealth of knowledge from experts in business, management, leadership, education, psychology, sociology and history. Grads of Life is also deeply involved in furthering research into DEI best practices. We view our research-based programming as foundational for every engagement.
It is absolutely vital to share this research with our participants, so that they can have access to insights from experts, but this research alone is not sufficient to drive practice change. Our perceptions of the world are shaped by powerful cognitive pathways, built over time, with inputs that include our personal experiences, our sense of self and our in-group, and our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious. In order to promote behavior change, we need to tap into the data and people’s emotions and belief systems (and follow up with tactical steps). In short, we need to engage our participants’ hearts and hands.
Engaging Participants’ Hearts
Talking about diversity, equity and inclusion is a high-risk endeavor. Many white people I speak with often feel threatened by these topics, and many people of color privately tell me that they often feel exhausted by the prospect of trying to help their colleagues understand their lived experiences. Sometimes DEI conversations can feel like a lose-lose proposition. I have heard some professionals say things like: “Nothing good can come out of this dialogue, so why should we make the effort?” Grads of Life works to reduce the risks involved in these conversations by helping our participants cultivate empathy for themselves and for others, thereby building an emotionally safe space for dialogue and discussion.
When we do this work well, we are able to move past our individual and collective defenses and begin an honest discussion about racial inequity. We find that this kind of learning then enables the group to marshal their intellect and energy to advance racial justice. This is where the hand comes in.
Engaging Participants’ Hands
DEI training has the most impact for businesses when people are able to influence their workplaces over time. Every session we facilitate uses principles of active learning to engage participants and outline strategies that our participants can use to improve their internal culture. For example, when we facilitate a portion of a seminar on unconscious bias, we poll participants on the (potential) unconscious biases they have witnessed in their workplace, discuss the impacts of these biases, and then introduce a framework for mitigating unconscious biases at work. Similarly, when discussing coaching diverse talent, we introduce the coaching mindset and have participants discuss a short case exercise and decide which high-impact coaching question(s) they would use to support the team member. At the end of the session, we send participants a list of high-impact coaching questions designed to help team members grow.
When we focus our sessions on the concrete steps that professionals can take, we find that it motivates people to do more and pursue deeper DEI work. It becomes a virtuous cycle for everyone involved.
The Head-Heart-Hand Framework in Action
In 2021, we worked with the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee of a midsize tech company that was trying to improve both the diversity of its workforce and the culture of the workplace for all employees. We facilitated a three-part training, which:
- Unpacked systemic racism in America and its impacts on all of us: individuals, businesses and communities.
- Reviewed research-based best practices for building more diverse, equitable and inclusive companies.
- Helped participants develop an action plan to improve their company.
- Supported the participants after the training as they worked to begin implementing their action plan.
At the conclusion of our nine-month engagement, the company was preparing to launch its first-ever biannual employee engagement survey to evaluate the employee experience. Their EDI committee was also in talks to support the recruitment of more diverse talent with the HR team.
The virtuous cycle continues in 2022. With the arrival of a new CEO came roundtable discussions on cultural pain points, an all-company readout on areas for improvement, and the launch of an anonymous feedback tool. In addition to expanding channels to capture employee sentiment, the organization officially relaunched their hiring model to focus on skills first. Their first role went live in August. Finally, members of the leadership and EDI teams continue to hold calls regularly to discuss their progress and ensure policies and practices land as they should.
To be clear, creating the conditions to meaningfully advance DEI, or EDI, is challenging work. We live in a deeply divided nation with persistent challenges around race, class, gender, equity, opportunity and power that sometimes feel intractable. The good news is that we have research-based best practices for how groups of committed people can improve their workplaces (and, by extension, their communities) to create better environments for everyone.