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When workshops won’t work

Several years ago, after I had facilitated a lively workshop on unconscious bias at a financial services firm, the client walked me to the elevator. He was beaming. “It was fantastic!” he said, handing me the check. When the elevator doors opened, he turned to me and said, “I wish I could say, ‘Hope to see you again soon!’” I cocked my head. “Well, if I see you again soon, it means we’re in trouble!” I smiled as he shook my hand and worked hard not to respond, “I think you may already be in trouble.”


His comment reminded me of one of three warning signs that a DEI training will not have the impact that an organization hopes it will have. When I see any of these dynamics at play, my experience tells me that a workshop likely won’t be worth the investment of time and money for the client. For them, gathering staff for a few hours will check a box, but they should not expect to see any significant change in equity or inclusion.


You don’t want this to happen to you! Ask yourself: are any of these true at my organization? If so, you might want to go a different direction. Otherwise, you might have a great time and learn a few things, but you won’t be any closer to your DEI goals.


When do workshops not work?

  1. When you only have one. This is the red flag I saw at the financial services firm. They called me in a panic after an “incident.” The leader believed that a single session on bias was like an inoculation. Now that we’ve done some exercises together, everyone knows how to spot a stereotype! So, like magic, all of us will be immune. If only this were true—we would live in a more just world. But, as in any adult learning, we don’t internalize knowledge or develop skills without repetition and practice. Learning has to be sustained to stick. And only when that learning is complemented with structural change, informed by assessment and guided by strategy, will an organization truly grow more inclusive and equitable.

  2. When hot personal dynamics are bubbling over. I’ve heard more than one client say, “We tried a workshop last year, but it ended up making things worse. We had to do damage control.” I suspect in many of these cases, this second warning sign wasn’t heeded. Many leaders are facing demands from employees to address persistent issues of sexism, racism, and cultural norms that alienate the diversifying workforce. These can be among the most challenging situations they have faced in their careers. Offering a workshop can feel like a visible, positive step to get things started (and sometimes it is). But if any underlying interpersonal conflicts are not surfaced and addressed first, a workshop can cause bubbling tension to boil over. Negative interpersonal dynamics undermine the emotional safety that a group needs to learn together. If that safety isn’t secure, you may want to wait on a workshop.

  3. When they are mandatory. Research is clear on this one. Yes, ultimately, you need everyone on board with the goals of equity and inclusion. But not everyone understands or supports the work of DEI at first, and a workshop alone won’t get them there. If you force people to go who are opposed to the process, they often resist. This looks like disengagement at best, and active trolling or hostility at worst. Supportive and neutral employees—and facilitators—are forced to respond to this behavior, taking away time and energy from the training itself. Best to start with those who are willing, curious, and eager, and build outward.

Okay, so let’s say you fit one of these three situations. If you are racing toward booking a workshop, hit pause. At least if that’s all you have planned. Workshops may still be useful as part of an overall package, alongside assessments and a strategic planning process. Trainings play an important role in cultural transformation: they help an organization develop a common language, provide an opportunity for participants to practice what might be difficult conversations across differences, get to know each other more personally, and generate excitement and enthusiasm about the work. A really effective workshop can turn someone from “interested” to “passionate” in just a few hours, building toward the critical mass of buy-in needed to affect real change.


As you consider your best move, check for the three warning signs. If you have only planned out as far as the end of the workshop, take time to determine what happens next. If people have been complaining about being treated badly on the basis of identity, tell any consultant you’re working with up front. They can be aware and ready to attend to anything that might surface in the workshop, and advise on other steps to take.


And while you should stay away from calling it mandatory, there are ways of going almost that far. One client sent an enthusiastic email from the leader indicating that they and the leadership team would be participating in the workshop themselves. They stressed how important it was for the organization, and showed that value with their own priorities. They offered lots of options to participate, in terms of scheduling, in-person vs. remote, etc. Finally, they used this clever formulation: “Everybody is expected to attend, but if you’re not able to make it for some reason, please send me an email explaining why.” If there were dissenters, that’s fine—let’s find out who they are and begin those conversations outside of the group.


If your workshop goes well, you can thank the facilitator, hand them their check, and say, “Looking forward to seeing you again soon!”


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