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Diversity Exercise

Diversity Training Exercises

Diversity Exercise

Informative approaches to diversity training are popular within organizations. They consist of presenting participants with factual information, sometimes including the historical background behind tensions between certain groups. The idea behind these techniques is that prejudice is brought about through 'fear of the unknown', and providing participants with accurate information about other groups can bring about a change in negative attitudes and behavior towards them. However, according to research this technique is often rather unsuccessful, having little effect when used on its own.

In order for diversity training to be effective, the authors stress the need for participants to be able to accept a sense of responsibility for reducing their own prejudice, and this can only be achieved if it is first brought to their attention that they do in fact hold certain prejudiced attitudes, even if they are not obviously manifest. This is something that is clearly lacking in purely informative techniques. In order to evoke a sense of responsibility, it is thought that participants need to feel a sense of guilt about their prejudiced attitudes, and this is what some other approaches to diversity training attempt to encourage. These are often the exercises and approaches which are seen as the most effective in diversity training.

An example of these ‘guilt-inducing’ techniques would be the well-known ‘Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed’ simulation. In this exercise, participants are split into two groups according to their eye color (blue/non-brown and brown). One of these groups is assigned as the ‘privileged’ group whose members are given privileges denied to the other group. They are also instructed to join the facilitator in acting in a discriminatory way towards the other ‘disadvantaged’ group in their interactions with them. The idea behind this exercise is that it shows participants how it feels to be on the receiving end of discrimination, and in so doing brings about guilt and motivation to change their attitudes and behavior towards other groups.

While this exercise would initially appear to be more effective than purely informative techniques, results have been mixed. One explanation for this is that exercises such as the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed simulation are too confrontational and lead not only to guilt, thought to encourage motivation to change, but also to self-directed anger at being prejudiced. It is thought that this self-directed anger may actually have a counterproductive effect in that it may cause some participants to become defensive and not able to move past this strong emotional response. The authors stress that if this type of exercise is to be used, then it is very important to have experienced workshop leaders to facilitate a discussion following the main exercise, which could help participants to understand and work through their anger to be able to gain more from the underlying messages of the simulation.

Another issue with techniques such as the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed simulation is that in the exercise, participants are exposed to quite extreme and overt discrimination. Nowadays, discrimination is conversely largely subtle and covert, which could make it difficult for participants to see how the exercise relates to ‘real life’. Perhaps such exercises need to be adapted to include more subtle forms of discrimination to make them more relevant for today’s participants.

A New Way Forward

Taking into account the shortcomings of many traditional techniques, many diversity experts created two alternative exercises based on solid research within the field of prejudice, discrimination and attitude change. These make participants aware of their prejudiced attitudes and evoke a sense of guilt and discomfort when participants discover their prejudiced attitudes. Crucially though, these exercises do not do this in such a confrontational way and therefore do not elicit such self-directed anger. These alternative approaches demonstrate that many of our reactions towards other groups are automatic and without intent, the focus being on educating participants as to why we hold prejudiced attitudes rather than simply highlighting the experience of being discriminated against. These exercises, they believe, will be much more effective as part of diversity programs.

Father-Son exercise

Participants in this exercise are asked to read the following passage and explain it:

A father and his son were involved in a car accident in which the father was killed and the son was seriously injured. The father was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident and his body taken to a local morgue. The son was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital and was immediately wheeled into an emergency operating room. A surgeon was called. Upon arrival, and seeing the patient, the attending surgeon exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, it’s my son!’

Can you explain this?

Although the most likely explanation is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, 40% of participants in this exercise do not come up with this solution as it is hard to overcome the automatic stereotype that surgeons are male. They opt instead for a much more complicated explanation, for example that the boy was adopted and the surgeon is his biological father.

The authors have found this to be a very effective exercise in diversity training as a good demonstration to illustrate the theory behind stereotyping. Due to its simplicity it has been found to very successfully facilitate participants’ understanding of the stereotyping process. More importantly, it doesn’t humiliate or upset participants, but is effective in alerting them to stereotypes which they didn’t previously realize they were influenced by. It has also been found to be a valuable exercise to stimulate conversation on other occupational stereotypes.

Group Membership and Bias exercise

In this exercise, participants are split into two groups and both are given the same ambiguous scenario to explain. An example of such a scenario would be that a person at work walks by without saying hello. One group is told that this person is a member of their own group, whereas the second group is told that he/she is a member of another group. The two groups come up with explanations for the person’s behavior in the scenario and then come together to share their thoughts. Almost without fail, participants who were told that the person in the scenario was a member of a group which was different from theirs come up with a more negative explanation of the ambiguous behavior than those who were told that the person was a member of a group to which they belonged. For example “he/she chose to ignore me” versus “he/she didn’t see me”.

Similar to the Father-Son exercise, this shows the effects stereotypes can have on our judgement without us even being aware of them. The realization that this occurs creates a sense of guilt which in turn can help participants reduce the effect stereotypes have on their future judgements and decisions. This guilt is elicited in a less confrontational and embarrassing way than in a lot of traditional techniques such as the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed simulation.

Final thoughts

Both of these exercises offer several advantages over other guilt-inducing diversity training techniques such as the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed exercise. Participants tend to react positively to the exercises, without feeling that they are being persecuted for their prejudiced reactions, and are as a result often motivated to consider more carefully stereotypic judgements and behaviors in the future. In addition, both exercises are simple to administer and explain and promote useful discussion.

The authors stress however, that for any diversity training intervention to work, it cannot stand alone, but must be in keeping with an organizational culture which promotes diversity in its values and policies. Failure of the organizational culture to reinforce the messages of diversity training can severely hamper even the most effective of approaches.


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