We repeatedly hear that diversity training can be a big waste of time and money. This not only comes from political leaders pushing an anti-woke ideology; it also comes from academics who cite concerns about the inability to change behavior from an isolated workshop and more importantly, the alarming reality that many diversity workshops correlate with an increase in discrimination and bias after the training occurs. As with anything, it’s not quite so simple but neither are the critiques entirely wrong.
Dozens of studies have looked at training interventions that effectively develop cultural intelligence and improve inclusion. Whether you’re designing a learning and development strategy for cultural intelligence or simply facilitating a CQ lunch and learn with your team, here are some questions your participants are asking and some evidence based considerations for how to respond.
What’s in it for me?
Your amazing slides, your personal anecdotes, and your passion all pale in contrast to designing content that is immediately relevant to your participants’ day-to-day realities. I’ve heard facilitators spend a lot of time talking about things like the different drumbeats used in musical styles around the world or unpacking the difference between emic and etic perspectives. While these kinds of discussions are interesting to me, they’re annoying to most practitioners who fail to see the relevance to their day jobs. Taking the time to learn about specific challenges being faced and working to repeatedly apply the discussion to addressing those challenges makes all the difference in both engaging participants in the learning and increasing the chance that they’ll use it.
Address “what’s in it for you” within the first five minutes of a session. Skip the long introductions and immediately demonstrate your understanding of the challenges being faced by the people in the room to ensure they lean in for more. There is a direct correlation between relevant content and motivating participants to engage in the learning.
Do You Know What I Already Know?
Fewer things are more frustrating to an adult learner than having a facilitator talk down to them and teach things that seem super basic and obvious. It’s crucial to assess the group’s current level of knowledge. I’ve cringed when watching facilitators spend ten minutes explaining to a group of seniors leaders things like the different ways people around the world write a date. Really? I mean, it’s possible there might be someone who is unaware that 11/09 may be in September or November but this kind of elementary information could be mentioned briefly in passing.
I’m guilty of the other extreme. I sometimes make too many assumptions about what a group already knows. I’ve repeatedly said something like, “You’re already aware of the difference between individualism and collectivism so I’m not going to insult you by going into that…” But later, some individuals will say, “I think you assume we know more about this than we do. I mean sure—I can figure out what individualism means but I don’t have a deep understanding of how that plays out for us as a team.” Many contexts include participants with different levels of cultural knowledge. Avoid reducing the session to the lowest common denominator and be clear upfront with participants about what prework is needed to make the most of the session.
But HOW do I do this?
It’s not enough to link CQ to participants’ real world challenges. We have to talk about how to apply cultural intelligence to their challenges. This is without question the biggest criticism I hear about CQ training sessions: “It wasn’t practical enough.” Describing why CQ is important to a group of project managers is helpful but what they want most is to know how to deal with a teammate who communicates in a way that feels passive aggressive or rude. Sure, it’s helpful to have some context behind why they might communicate that way. But what should I actually do?
I’ve gained a reputation for responding to these kinds of practical questions with “It depends.” I refuse to give prescriptive answers to complex dilemmas without the fuller context. But it’s incredibly frustrating to a group of learners to be left with that as the only response. It’s fine to remind a group that there’s a lot of subjectivity and nuance but offering something like a decision-making tree or questions to use in order to figure out the answer to “it depends” is a nice balance between being too dogmatic and too abstract. Reduce the amount of time you spend telling a group what cultural intelligence is and why they need it; increase the amount of time demonstrating how to apply it.
Why are you so upset about this (or not!)?
Many people dread DEI trainings because they assume they’re going to be shamed and yelled at. Others are disappointed when it seems like the approach to such a difficult topic is too fluffy and superficial. One of the most important aspects to promote effective learning around CQ is to create a zone of productive disequilibrium. This is an idea that stems from the field of adaptive leadership and it refers to finding the optimal zone of discomfort that yields productive understanding, reflection, and change. If we’re too disoriented and uncomfortable, we’re unlikely to learn. But without any disorientation and discomfort, growth won’t happen.
Participants often say what they think they should say rather than sharing their actual thoughts during CQ and DEI training programs. To counter this, make sure workshops and courses include a high level of dialogue and action planning. Help participants reflect on and make sense of their intercultural experiences; help them set specific and measurable developmental goals. And build an environment of psychological safety and intellectual honesty. If people feel attacked, they will become defensive and closed; but if the workshop is simply a pleasant conversation, it’s unlikely to foster change.
Where is this session happening?
For participants, the location of the training is primarily a logistical point. But for those of us who want to create the ideal environment for effective learning and dialogue, the location matters a lot. For frontline staff, training is most effective when it’s done on-site or through a virtual platform. Research shows that people more readily retain and apply learning when training occurs in the same environment as where it is used. Cultural intelligence training for leaders, however, is usually more effective when it’s done off-site to remove the distractions that come from being accessible to the day-to-day interruptions at the office. It’s very difficult for leaders to give their full attention when they’re accessible to everyone. Leaders also benefit more than individual contributors from sessions that include peers from other organizations and industries.
Use a venue with natural light and adequate room for people to meet in groups. The same content taught in a dark room with chairs lined in rows is far less effective than learning that same content in a room that leverages the power of open space and light.
Too often, we run out of time at the end of a session and rush through a couple closing slides about what to do next. Don’t skip this part. Your closing story is less important than making sure each individual or even the group as a whole has time to identify a concrete action plan. Offer resources where they can learn more. Encourage or insist on accountability with a peer, manager, or coach. And create space for individuals to share their action plans since this provides both accountability and additional ideas to others.
The best way to learn cultural intelligence is to see it and experience it firsthand. Employees who work in more diverse organizations are more likely to develop their CQ than those who work in more monocultural firms. But formalized learning that allows individuals to step away from their everyday work to reflect on their cultural identities and improve their skills working with people who have different backgrounds is also an important part. And by the way—workshops and seminars are an ideal time to demonstrate your own cultural intelligence. How do you handle overly talkative person? What do you do when a couple individuals want you to spend more time talking about the research but it’s clear that everyone else wants you to move on? Consider some of the suggestions in this article to improve the way you adjust your presentation. And remember to create plenty of room for dialogue and reflection. Even for cultures that are more comfortable with lecture, we all learn cultural intelligence better when we have space to process it and interact about it.
Despite the abundant critiques about DEI training and cultural intelligence workshops, when done right, these kinds of learning opportunities are proven to build cultural intelligence. Make the learner the center of how you prepare and more than likely, you will find yourself learning plenty as well.
 Gebert, D., Buengeler, C., & Heinitz, K. (2017). Tolerance: A neglected dimension in diversity training? Academy of Management Learning & Education, 16(3), 415–438.
 Lacerenza, C. Reyes, D, Marlow, S. & Salas, E. (2017). Leadership training design, delivery, and implementation: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(12), 1686-1718.
 Ng, KY, Tan, M.L., & Ang, S. (2011). Global culture capital and cosmopolitan human capital. In A. Burton-Jones, & J. C. Spender (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Human Capital, Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press.