A Key to Effective Diversity Training? Promote Group Variability

As recently as 15 years ago, relatively few companies offered diversity training of any kind. That has changed, and today, diversity training is the norm. Our research shows this is even the case in sport, where most sport organizations offer training of one kind or another. Training is also important in educational efforts, as many management scholars have argued for mandatory diversity education in the curricula. 

A legitimate question, given the time, energy, and money spent holding the training, is how effective is it? Again, our research suggests there are certain characteristics of the training (e.g., performance focused, linked with strategic goals, etc.) that make people more likely benefit from it. Less well known are the ways in which people can design training to reduce prejudice and change attitudes. 

Franziska Ehrke, Anne Berthold, and Melanie C. Steffens recently conducted a series of studies examining this very issue.* They suggested that a key part of stereotyping and prejudice was that people held the belief of homogeneous groups. That is, people similar to them were generally the same, and people different from them--against whom they might hold negative attitudes--were also generally the same. If this is the case, then a key strategy to improving group attitudes might be to dispel this notion, whereby trainees come to recognize that groups are made up of people from varied backgrounds, who hold divergent attitudes, and who are generally as different as they are the same. 

Let's put this in the context of racism. It might be compelling for a White person holding racist attitudes toward Latinos to believe that all Latinos are the same. This makes it easy to discriminate and cast dispersions against "those people." However, what happens when the White trainee comes to learn of the considerable variability in backgrounds, beliefs, values, and perspectives among Latinos? It potentially becomes much harder to discriminate because the notion of "those people" no longer becomes relevant.

Back to the research at hand: Ehrke and colleagues conducted two studies to examine these general ideas. In the first study, they randomly divided people into an experimental group or the control group. In the former, people engaged in activities where they saw first hand the variability of responses among members of different groups, and they were able to discuss these differences. The control group participants also participated in activities that might be included in diversity training and discussed the concept of stereotypes, but they did not specifically note the variability among social groups.

Results showed that the intervention worked. Those in the experimental condition expressed greater belief of variability of the in-group and more positive attitudes toward out-group members. These effects were not as pronounced in the control group. They followed up this experiment with another one, and the general pattern of findings remained. Importantly, they also found that people who expressed prejudice beforehand were less likely to do so.

In discussing the results, the authors noted the important connection between theory and practice--a goal of this blog in general, by the way. They noted: "we showed that diversity training can benefit from social-psychological theorizing. Conversely, social psychological-theories can benefit from diversity-training research by enhancing their external validity." It is this connection that allows better theory, better practice, and more inclusive sport organizations. 

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* Ehrke, F., Berthold, A., & Steffens, M. C. (2014). How diversity training can change attitudes: Increased perceived complexity of superordinate groups to improve intergroup relations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 193-206.