Diversity programs failing?

In the July 2016 issue of the HBR the cover article stated that diversity programs fail. Explosive stuff for someone in my field. And my first reaction was a defensive one. Are you telling me that the work I do doesn’t seem to have any effect? Reading the article I realised once more there is a big difference between the work that has been done on diversity in the USA and in Europe. The diversity “industry” has a longer history and larger training market on the other side of the ocean than here in Europe. In the nineties and early 2000 I wasn’t even sure if the diversity programs being run in the US would ever root in Europe. However, at the beginning of 2015 one of my Swedish multinational clients kicked of an Unconscious Bias training. Highly interesting content, very much in line with for example Google’s workshop on this topic. Many other global companies have similar trainings going on. This 2,5 hour training fits the characteristics described in the HBR article and I can see some of the frustration described in the article amongst participants.

The work I have been doing since 1996 in the field that I could call diversity has more to do with only one aspect of diversity, that of national cultural differences. I will never forget one of the first workshops I held for a group of teachers working at a high school with over 70% students with immigrant backgrounds. Once I had explained that people from different backgrounds have different drivers and are motivated differently than the Dutch teachers, they felt relief. Finally they could make sense of their and their students frustrations. They could work with trying to adjust their communication or explain why they as teachers were asking students to do something in a particular way. I felt I could help and that my workshop did have an impact. That feeling I still carry with me when working with my clients. I need to be sure that I am contributing in making a difference, otherwise I will not have met my client’s goal. I do believe working with creating understanding of cultural differences does have an impact and does not fall under the programs described in the article. But, just a few weeks after this article another debate caught my attention. In one of the LinkedIn groups of SIETAR there was a debate on the abandonment of essentialist perspective in intercultural professions. Or in other words to let go of dimensions as these are limiting our cultural understanding and increasing stereotyping. I personally believe we need some kind of construction to help us understand the differences we notice, while at the same time also realise an individual doesn’t have to be like her/his national culture. To be able to help people be competent in interactions with people from other cultures, we need more than training (here I agree with the HBR article). Seeing the patterns of national culture in an individual and supporting multicultural teams, mastering a variety of skills are needed. Training, mentoring, coaching, international experience, projects across borders etc all help to develop competences. It is here companies and individuals need to advance.