Grist for the Mill: How debate, delays, and discomfort might spell success for your DEI training

A key role of business leaders is to spot elements of friction–such as an outdated piece of technology or a struggling employee–and find ways to remove it (the friction, not the employee). Many times, that friction-removal process is delivered as some form of “training.”

And training can be a very effective way to smooth and speed things up. If a new hire is struggling to understand their job requirements, training gives them context, tests their knowledge, and helps them practice skills within a safe environment. Likewise, if a new piece of technology is causing friction in the form of high error rates, then training can help people better understand and adopt new behaviors.

In both of these examples, a frictionless experience–one where new skills and technology are completely integrated–seems like the ultimate goal. What many don’t realize, however, is that other workplace experiences actually require a continuous introduction of more friction in order to thrive.

When “Seamless” Means “Silenced”

The friction we’re describing here is more than just the basic cognitive dissonance that comes with trying something new. Learning inherently requires a bit of discomfort. But again, most Learning and Development programs ultimately promise a resolution of that dissonant tension. Yet when it comes to topics like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), a “smooth and seamless” experience should neither be the goal of the training, nor of the workplace.

In her 2021 TIME article, Anne Helen Petersen explains that striving for a completely frictionless workplace “means looking and acting and behaving like people in power, which, at least in American society, means being white, male and cisgender; with few or no caregiving responsibilities; no physical or mental disabilities; no strong accent or awkward social tics or physical reminders, like ‘bad teeth,’ of growing up poor; and no needs for accommodations—religious, dietary or otherwise.” In other words, removing the friction of DEI issues becomes an act of silencing, of covering up. 

Therefore, to create a successful DEI program, we need to start thinking of more ways to strategically introduce more friction into what are often still very homogenized environments. This might take the form of curricula or workplaces that make room for new perspectives, responsibilities, and needs.

Moving the Goalposts

This creates a problem, though. It seems the success of certain training curricula (things like DEI, communication skills, leadership, etc.) should have different, or even opposing, metrics compared to the rest of your training programs.

What’s the ideal “star rating” for a DEI course? Should people feel comfortable or happy with where they are? On a behavioral level, should teams lengthen product roadmaps to account for a more diverse range of perspectives? Obviously, these friction elements need to be balanced with the needs of business production, but if nothing else, we should acknowledge the healthy (and necessary) push-and-pull relationship of goals.

This also means that when it comes to measuring the impact of something like DEI training, we should collectively work to expand our definition of what “success” means. Instead of saying, “100% of new hires completed our DEI course this week,” what if companies began saying, “100% of new hires felt empowered to speak up in our all-hands meeting this week?” What if you tracked how well your leadership pipeline reflected representation across your workforce? What if an uptick in DEI issues actually indicated growth (more people calling out behaviors) rather than a backslide? It might be harder to list these new metrics on a P&L statement, but that doesn’t make them meaningless.

What’s Next

Just like an impactful DEI curriculum, the goal of this article is to ask more than it answers. We hope you bring some of these questions to your team, and hopefully walk away with an even longer list of questions.

And if you’re looking for even more people to continue the discussion with, contact us.

We’d love to learn about what points of friction you’re experiencing today and which of those friction points might spark into an illuminating flame.