Diversity and inclusion: Actions speak louder than words

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, it’s actions rather than just knowledge that really makes the difference. Elva Ainsworth shares her tips to elicit meaningful, lasting change. 

Diversity and inclusion matter more than ever, but are not straight forward to achieve. From a learning and development point of view, classroom and virtual training are really useful but are not the answer to greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Training in the issues and the facts is important but education alone won’t make the difference. Knowledge doesn’t rewire our brains or unpick our unconscious biases. Actions are what make the difference. That means changing behaviours, alongside having explicit commitment, declarations and risk taking – from both people and the organisations they represent. Individuals calling out behaviour and actively supporting others, and organisations investing in and changing policies and taking initiatives – these are the sort of actions that change things. But how can you elicit them?

First you need to start with raising awareness. This is where training really can work well, especially when there is some active research going on. Data gathering on how it really is for minority groups can be a critical part of getting ‘under the skin’ of the issue in your organisation. This can also empower employees to explore the issues for themselves. 

The trick with training is to ensure it isn’t just focused on the morality of the issues, and to ensure the language and process used throughout are supremely inclusive.  

What’s in it for us?

Diversity needs explaining in terms of cultural history and today’s reality in your environment. It also needs to be sold. ‘What’s in it for them?’ needs to be answered along with ‘what’s in it for us?’ The more women that are represented, for example, the more democratic society is. This then leads to an improvement in the quality of decision-making. The evidence is very clear, the more women in senior roles in corporations the better the business performance. The more inclusive a culture, the more engagement and effectiveness

Training in unconscious bias has been a common element in training programmes, and it can be effective at shifting awareness and interest, but it’s just one piece of what is required to effect real cultural change. Without following up with calls to action, unconscious bias training could even reinforce stereotypes, so this has fallen out of favour somewhat.

It’s important to move employees from seeing themselves as trainees to being part of the problem – and therefore the solution.

The following are three strategies that I have found can help really drive change.

1. Leading from the top

Cultural change needs to be driven from every direction, but the most senior leaders are powerful influencers so focus on them first. 

Five ways to get your leaders to drive your D&I agenda:

  1. Set up an executive coaching programme so that each individual gets support and feedback on their personal inclusivity
  2. Provide detailed and developmental 360 degree feedback on the behaviours required for inclusive and strategic leadership
  3. Ensure D&I is on the agenda and at the Board table with someone named as accountable
  4. Review HR policies in hiring (external and internal) and in performance management and upgrade their inclusivity
  5. Ask all the senior leaders to pledge their own personal committed actions and then share these. Check they are strategic, team-focused and personal

2. Experiential learning

People find it difficult to really know how bias can affect others unless they experience it for themselves. My own experience of being in a minority has taught me a lot but not everyone has had these life experiences or has noticed them. Three ways to build experiential learning into your plan:

  1. Design a course that deliberately places and plays with “taking perspectives” and stereotypic labels so participants get to experience them from both sides
  2. Use role play to explore the categorisation that occurs and unpick their personal ‘judgements’ and decision making
  3. Use illusory tests and examples to visibly show people the fallibility of their own brains. Use the free tests run by Harvard for instance.  

Aim to shock your employees with a real and visceral experience of how stereotypes cage others’ futures (even though his is a natural human phenomenon).

3. Upgrade leadership skills

Your leaders are likely to need to become more ‘inclusive.’  Training in inclusive leadership is a key cornerstone to this upgrade but other actions can be taken too:

  • Make sure your competency model includes inclusivity and incorporates the behaviours that make the difference between those who include and those who do not
  • Apply this model in development and performance planning processes via 360 tools etc by clarifying in how this should show up in day to day work
  • Notice those behaviours that are working against inclusivity and call them out in a professional and compassionate way, even if it is counter-cultural. Exposing blind spots can be quite shocking but, with care and sensitivity, some key messages can be delivered with positive impact

By taking a holistic and integrated approach, it’s possible to embed inclusion into everything – from how you run Zoom calls to the way you review CVs in recruitment. Results won’t be immediate, but slowly these actions will feed a positive culture, boost engagement and even improve how your employees feel about working for you. Most importantly, diversity training then stops being just another thing that leaders and their teams have on their to-do list and instead becomes something that inspires real and lasting change.  


Sarah Burrell

About Elva Ainsworth

Elva Ainsworth is the CEO at Talent Innovations. She was born into a family of people-watchers and has cultivated a real love of people pattern spotting. This combination led her to a career in HR after a psychology degree at Bristol University. In HR she enjoyed implementing psychometrics, as well as designing culture change and personal development tools.

In 1994 she focused on her love of psychometrics by joining business psychologists SHL (now CEB) where she managed the 360° feedback and management development practice in both the UK and USA. Her vision of creating a highly transformational 360° feedback tool led to her starting Talent Innovations in 2000.  Talent Innovations is now a leading provider of 360° feedback, delivering to prestigious clients in 26 languages.Elva has published two books, 360 Degree Feedback: A Transformational Approach and Reboot Your Reputation: 11 Ways to Change Their Minds.

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