Building bridges. Why are DEI programs frequently failing?

by | Mar 23, 2023 | 0 comments

              Building bridges. Why are DEI programs sometimes failing?

                                                        Huib Wursten Author and conultant


This is the third of a series of articles on Culture, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This article focuses on the recent doubts about the effectiveness of the DEI programs. In addition, advice is given about how to improve the effectiveness.

The first article discussed seven culture clusters with different “rules of the game” for decision-making and policy development. These rules of the game affect the key issues of DEI. For each of the Mental Images, one country was used as an example: the USA, the Netherlands, Germany, France, India, Nigeria and Japan

The second article described the need to understand the shorelines if you want to build bridges to achieve Inclusion. Sixteen of these shorelines were identified.



Diversity, forcefield analysis, Tolerance, organizational culture, DEI


DEI programs have been around for quite a while now. A lot of organizations are making these programs obligatory. However, in the last few years, some doubts have been expressed about their effectiveness. Singal (2023) published a contribution on the opinion page of the New York Times titled: What if Diversity Trainings Are Doing More Harm Than Good? Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev asked: “Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? The Challenge for Industry and Academia. “A similar warning was given by Elizabeth Levy et al. In “Prejudice Reduction: Progress and Challenges “, they say: “Mostly these interventions appear to have little or no positive long-term effects. The lack of evidence is “disappointing”.


Anti-bias training started because of the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s. By 2005, 65 percent of large firms in the USA offered diversity training. DEI is a hot issue now for organizations. Many leaders know that if they don’t do the right thing, they will get public opinion against them. And will damage their reputations. So, avoiding a negative Press is a strong motivator.                                                                                                                                 But recently, doubts have been expressed if training alone does change attitudes or behavior. And if so, how much and for how long.                                                                                                                                                              Research shows that, in general, short-term educational interventions do not change people. Let go biases that people acquire over a lifetime. The most disappointing discovery is that anti-bias training even tends to activate stereotypes.

One important issue is the consequence of making anti-bias training obligatory. Self-determination research shows that when organizations frame motivation for pursuing a goal as originating internally, commitment rises, but when they frame motivation as originating externally, rebellion increases.

 Two common features of diversity training — mandatory participation and legal curriculum — will make participants feel that external power is trying to control their behavior. By mandating participation, employers send the message that employees need to change, and the employer will require it. By emphasizing the law, employers convey that external government mandates are behind training. These features may lead employees to think that commitment to diversity is being coerced.

A recent meta-analysis suggests that a change in unconscious bias does not necessarily lead to a change in discrimination. Instead, discrimination may result from habits of mind and behavior or organizational practices not rooted in unconscious bias alone.

All the above leads to the conclusion that it cannot be expected that training alone will be effective in changing the workplace. Training should be part of a wider program of change management.

The three stages of change management: Unfreezing, Moving and Freezing

We can learn from one of the main experts on change management Carl Lewin and his thinking about Forcefields.

  1. Forcefield analysis. The three steps

Of course, there are many theories and models about change management. But one of the clearest and simplest is Lewin’s three-step model. The first step in this model is to ‘unfreeze‘ people; i.e., people need to understand why things should be done differently. This first step, the process of unfreezing, is culturally sensitive. This means that explaining why something should be done differently within the organization cannot be shown or “rolled out” The second step in the model is ‘moving‘; i.e., new insights, attitudes, and skills are required after making people aware that they need to do things differently. Finally, the third step is ‘freezing‘; i.e., the newly acquired skills should be developed into a new routine. Even though this is one of the most basic models, most organizations tend to concentrate only on step two, moving, and forget steps one and three. This is a big mistake, especially since the essence of change management is understanding how humans behave.                                                                                                                                 The secret to understanding effective change management is to realize that, concerning all individuals and groups, two forces are constantly at work: the force of change and resistance. These forces push and pull at each other and maintain a dynamic equilibrium.

We all like to do new things and improve our work. This is the nature humans have experience with. However, we also want to continue doing something we already know. It gives us emotional security. When we apply our ‘routine‘, it gives us a positive feeling of mastering our environment. It also saves energy; it would be exhausting to invent the wheel daily.

It is easy to see that if one starts pushing the force of change in this dynamic equilibrium, the force of resistance will push back.

Moreover, the harder the push, the harder the resistance will push back. So, to make change successful, it is essential to start doing something about resistance. The way to do this is culturally dependent. So when considering rolling out a change program, one needs to understand the dynamics of change and resistance and how one needs to vary motivation styles due to cultural differences.

To take the stages at heart and to be more effective in running the DEI programs, we should take a four-step approach to DEI. 

A four-step path to achieve successful implementation of DEI across cultures:

The first thing that international management should realize is that the influence of cultural differences should not be underestimated. In an interview with the Economist, Geert Hofstede said that culture is more often a source of conflict than synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster [1].” In the following text, we propose solutions for solving the potential pitfalls of cooperation in internationally diverse teams.

  1. Unfreezing

Identify Key Differences

To identify the key differences, it is recommended to “unfreeze” the possible resistance from also good willing participants. For example, resistance frequently comes from people who “don’t want to stereotype”, who “don’t want to put people in boxes,” or even people who deny that people are different.

A simple exercise can do the unfreezing. Asking everybody individually to write down One positive example of diversity issues and one uneasy example (or puzzling element) Experience shows that rarely do participants resist doing this. After sharing the exercise with others, they realize that they implicitly accepted differences.

Some behavioral differences are superficial or may refer to personal preferences. Other differences are deeply embedded in the value systems. They determine people’s choices of what is right and wrong. But it is important to accept that biases and stereotypes affect us all and can be hurtful to others. In principle, people can feel empathy for the feelings of others. (See also below about the research of Frans de Waal on empathy.) But this is not enough. It should also be clear that real differences exist. Making people aware of the shorelines is essential to build bridges. The list of 16 shorelines in the second article on DEI might be helpful.

  1. Bridging the Gap

After the key differences have been identified, there is a need to find acceptable solutions for all parties concerned, i.e., bridging the gap.

The basic principle is to identify key stakeholders carefully. If the key stakeholders are locals, then in principle, it is right to put the local “mental Image” at the center and to train individuals to understand how to operate. However, it becomes more complex when discussing cooperation between international teams. Under these circumstances, how do we identify the predominant Mental Image to base the style? Is it naturally assumed that we follow the Head Office culture, or do we first consider the local culture because this is our operating context? Following the advice of Jack Welch, I recommend applying what is referred to in negotiating theories as ‘inclusive solutions’ or the ‘win-win’ approach.

Not surprisingly, as measured by Hofstede’s dimensions, the negotiation style used in different countries is mainly related to the diverse cultural backgrounds of the people within these countries. However, on the surface, this is not always clear because many theories are written in terms of social desirability (what looks good) and not social practice (what really works). One example is the so-called ‘win-win’ approach to negotiating. Surprisingly, the book on negotiation that coined the phrase ‘win-win’ (Roger Fisher et al. Getting to Yes) is from a Masculine (MAS) culture like the US. While at a bookshop in Washington DC, I also noticed that the most popular book on negotiating was called: “How to be persuasive and How to win every time” – another common trait of Contest cultures like the US.

The most common misunderstanding about good (international) negotiating is about winning or losing. This is only true in a one-time negotiation – if you never meet again, it does not matter if one side feels like the loser. However, research shows that in interdependent situations where people are repeatedly meeting, it is dangerous to create negative feelings on the other side because the same people will try to get back at you the next time you deal with them. The best approach is to try to create a solution that is acceptable for both sides and to be careful not to exert too much pressure even if your side is holding all the trump cards.

Repeating or rephrasing arguments is mostly unproductive. The best attitude is to analyze the interests of the parties involved and create a solution covering these interests. The skill needed here is to create different scenarios with different mixes of interests. These scenarios sometimes can go beyond the situation here and now, also considering trade-offs that might lie in the future. In the cultural context, this means understanding the needs created by the rules of the game of the different Mental Images and formulating solutions.

  1. Integrating Difference

 The next step is to integrate the solutions, i.e., what to do to ensure the solutions are also working after the initial excitement.

-The role of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) & the need to have a “Diversity officer

It is important to keep the ‘win-win’ mentality and the solutions intact, especially in times of tension. The task is to develop (internal) procedures considering the ‘bridging mentality’. Experience teaches us that negotiated solutions to bridge differences work as long as they are remembered and as long there is no crisis. People who work together are, in principle, well-intentioned and, after having attended a well-designed workshop, are willing to avoid stereotyping and biases. But when daily work takes over, and a zillion other things demand immediate attention, the procedural solutions tend to be forgotten. This is even truer when a crisis erupts. Under these circumstances, individuals naturally revert to their ‘natural’ behavior.

Moreover, when under pressure, people lose patience and become irritated about the behavior of others; they tend to be even obstructive. Therefore the previously negotiated solutions must be secured in a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). An SOP is an approved document with instructions on how to solve conflicts or misunderstandings. The development of such procedures should happen in a period of relative rest to prevent a partisan approach. A second important step is to make one person responsible for applying the SOP if needed. This ‘SOP owner’ should be formally recognized with this responsibility and officially sponsored by a management team member. In essence, we are asking for a DEI officer in organizations to take care of this.

  1. Anchoring Solutions

 Lastly, solutions should be anchored. The Role of Organizational Culture

Anchoring is only possible if the solutions are embedded in a company’s organizational culture. That means that management should continuously reinforce the desired behaviors consistent with the organizational culture they want to foster and ensure that the solutions are fully integrated into the assessment and reward culture (depending on the relevant Mental Image). It is important here to distinguish between organizational culture and national or country culture.

Country Culture and Organizational Culture

Country culture is about VALUES. Research shows that values remain consistent over time. They are not static! New situations arise, and the systems must adapt to the new environment. The adaptations’ shape is not random but steered by the rules of the game of the Mental Image.

On the other hand, companies usually also have a set of guiding principles or ambitions that influence practices. Commonly referred to as “company values”. (However, in my opinion, these company ‘values’ should often rather be labeled as ambitions or guiding principles)

Organizational culture is about practices. However, contrary to the values, these practices can be easily changed to make a more functional organization. Organizational culture is how members of an organization relate to each other, their work and the outside world compared to other organizations.

After ensuring the “solutions” are working, the organization should try to ensure that the solutions fit the optimal organizational culture.

                                                          The Importance of Tolerance

In a democracy, the majority prevails. Human rights are about protecting those who cannot defend themselves through the democratic process, such as members of minority groups. We should have safeguards when the rights of minority groups are not protected through majoritarian procedures; we should defend democracy against the intolerant.

How universal is Tolerance?                                                                                                                                         Recent research has shown that morality predates religion on the level of what is common to all humankind. Frans de Waal, a Dutch ethologist, found in his study on animals that this is not even limited to human beings. He discovered that primates like Chimpanzees and Bonobos even share morality. Through his continuous research, he found two basic pillars of morality:

Reciprocity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”- This relates to a sense of fairness and justice.

Empathy: The ability to understand and to share the feelings of others.” –  It is safe to say that, in general, humans everywhere share the ability to be empathetic.

This is important as this enables us all to enjoy music, books, paintings, and dance, even from areas that are very remote from where we live and where we were raised. In short, to understand each other worldwide. In this sense, we can conclude that Tolerance is universalistic as it reflects empathy and reciprocity.

Tolerance and Religious Convictions in open democratic societies.

Tensions between human rights and religious convictions can be handled in different ways. The different approaches can be shown by comparing France and the USA

Whereas freedom of religion in the United States began as a defense of religion against the state, France’s started with a defense of the state against religion.

The American way is basically to promote the coexistence of different ethnic groups and religions; This approach emphasizes protecting the rights of minorities. However, the criticism is that this approach leads to a dangerous social and cultural fragmentation where the groups withdraw inside their bubble.

The French Republican model, according to Heinich (Heinich 2018), is on the other side. It is color-blind and universalist. Everybody can be French as long as the fundamental values of the Republic are supported. People of all races, religions, and backgrounds are treated as citizens with equal rights without differentiation. France maintains no register of people’s ethnicity or religion. A critical element of that model is the French concept of secularism, laïcité, a legacy of the French struggle against the power of the Roman Catholic Church. French policies such as banning Muslim headscarves in school, perceived by many French as combating religious coercion, are often criticized in the USA for imposing French identity on immigrants forcibly. To its critics, the French model does too little to improve the fate of Arab and African Muslims living in suburban public housing, the “banlieues” where youth unemployment runs sky-high, and many Islamist radicals are incubated. Conditions there have only worsened with the coronavirus pandemic.


Dobbin Frank, Kalev Alexandra Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? The Challenge for Industry and Academia, (2018) Anthropology now.Tel Aviv University Department of Sociology &Anthropology

Levy Paluck, Elisabeth;  Porat Roni; Clark Chelsey S. and Green Donald P. Green (2021)

Prejudice Reduction: Progress and Challenges, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2021. 72:533–60

Malik Ken (2023) Focusing on diversity means we miss the big picture. It’s class that shapes our lives The Observer January 29, 2023

Lewin, K., “Group dynamics and social change” (1958) in:  A. Etzioni, “Social change”, Basic Books Inc. Publishers, New York/London (1964)

Singel Jesse. (2021) The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. . Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN9780374239800

Singal Jesse (2023) What if Diversity Trainings Are Doing More Harm Than Good? New York Times

Waal Frans de, Primates and Philosophers. How morality evolved. Princeton University Press, 2006  ISBN13:9780691124476

Wursten Huib (2019). The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized word ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347


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