Why Diversity Programs Fail

Why Diversity Programs Fail: and what works better.

HBR July-August 2016, p57

By Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev

Diversity programs are not increasing diversity and a big reason is that the same approaches that did not work in the 1960’s are being used now. Their whole purpose seems to be simply to preempt lawsuits. In fact, these programs often decrease diversity. Sounds like a pretty bleak article, doesn’t it? The saving grace is the “what works better” part and that makes it a worthwhile article.

The article says, “Executives favor a classic command-and-control approach to diversity” which is, perhaps a damning comment on the general status of corporate upper management. The things that work, which are not part of a command and control management system, are things like, “targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces.”

Techniques that work don’t focus on control. “Engage managers in solving the problem, expose them to people from different groups, and encourage social accountability for change.” The article dives deep into why these non-controlling techniques work. “When someone’s beliefs and behaviors are out of sync that person experiences what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance.’” People resolve the dissonance “by changing either the beliefs or behavior.”

Contact, as equals, between different races and minorities eases tensions around diversity. Cross-training rotations and diverse, self-managed teams are ways of generating contact as equals across diverse situations. Another technique is the use of social accountability, such as public displays of averaged data about diversity or the use of diversity task forces.

Some companies are simply not open to making diversity a priority and they will not go beyond what is required to prevent lawsuits. Such companies are locked down and run by fear, especially at the executive level. What that fear gets you is punishing command and control management that results in minimum compliance to minimal standards and it requires constant policing to maintain minimum productivity. There are better ways and they are much more productive and profitable.