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Many organisations today employ diversity training as a way to effectively manage an increasingly diverse workforce. Despite its noble objectives, however, such training is often ineffective and can even exacerbate misunderstanding and conflict in the workplace. To enhance diversity-training effectiveness and help employees constructively deal with differences, diversity training should rather foster tolerance by incorporating tolerance-centred strategies. This is the conclusion of a new research paper co-authored by UvA researcher Claudia Buengeler and published in the latest online edition of the 'Academy of Management Learning & Education'.

Credits: SaalehBamjee (FlickrCC)

The opposite effect

For many organisations with a mixed workforce, diversity training forms a central pillar of their human resource policy. Such training, which is usually given by diversity trainers, aims to harness the benefits of having people with diverse backgrounds working together and to eliminate prejudice and discrimination. In recent years, however, diversity-training interventions have been criticized for often being ineffective, if not counterproductive.  

In their article ‘Tolerance-a neglected dimension in diversity training?’, Buengeler and her co-authors Diether Gebert (Tongji University, China) and Kathrin Heinitz (Freie Universität Berlin) explain why diversity training is often ineffective. ‘Diversity training frequently has the opposite effect because it highlights the differences between people without providing the means to constructively deal with them’, says Buengeler, assistant professor at the UvA’s Amsterdam Business School. ‘Diversity can then easily be seen as irreconcilable and result in conflict.’

The authors argue that a misunderstanding of what tolerance means forms the core problem in many diversity-training interventions. According to them, the current understanding of tolerance often implies that one must not only put up with, but also appreciate the respective other’s position. Any non-endorsement of differing values is then easily considered intolerant and socially sanctioned, reflecting a new form of intolerance This can lead to resentment, open opposition, or a facade of conformity, which ultimately increases rather than decreases conflict between groups. Buengeler: ‘It is critical to develop an understanding of tolerance where one accepts that the other’s position is different but also that one doesn’t necessarily need to endorse it. This allows for real dialogue.’

Tolerance as a means to bridge differences

How can tolerance be developed? According to the authors, the diversity trainers’ beliefs are vital in this regard because it is their mind-set which determines the adopted training measures. This in turn influences the training given to participants. Buengeler: ‘For example, many trainers have firm value-in-diversity beliefs. If they understand these as the absolute truth, trainees who disagree will feel forced to comply and keep quiet or will fiercely defend their own beliefs. This undermines learning on how to constructively deal with differences.’

Instead, it is vital that trainers understand there are many different absolute truths and that their own (and others’) values are preliminary, socially constructed and historically contingent. ‘Rather than demanding compliance, trainers should foster open communication as opposed to non-communication or dogmatic communication where these differing values can be explored’, says Buengeler.

The authors offer concrete suggestions for a tolerance-centred diversity training in organisations and an example of how elements of such training can be integrated in higher education, for instance at universities. This includes getting to know the limits of justifiability of one’s own firmly held beliefs and values, and learning how to engage in dialogic behaviour in the form of open questioning, open listening and open answering when discussing controversial value-related issues (e.g., religion).

Adopting a tolerance-centred strategy to constructively deal with differences is also important in society at large, says Buengeler. For instance, the political arena is currently characterised by increasing polarisation between opposing camps that fiercely defend their respective absolute truths, as can be seen in the discussions surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election or Brexit. Buengeler: ‘Promoting tolerance could help turn the spiral of conflict into real dialogue.’

Publication details

Gebert, D., Buengeler, C., & Heinitz, K. (2016). Tolerance—a neglected dimension in diversity training?. Academy of Management Learning & Education. doi: 10.5465/amle.2015.0252.