While roughly half of Michigan’s population is composed of minorities, just 14 percent of the employees in the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget in 2006 were from these groups.
Even though the minority representation within the department’s upper echelon was similar to that of some private entities, an inclusion survey showed that many rank-and-file minority employees felt excluded in workforce decision-making, said Tim McCormick, a senior executive specialist in the state’s Office of Retirement Services within the department. In 2007 he was appointed chairman of a department-wide committee on diversity by Director Lisa Webb Sharpe.
While 71 percent of black employees in the inclusion survey felt “free and open” to express their ideas, opinions and beliefs, only 50 percent of other minorities felt the same way, compared to three-quarters of whites.
To remedy the situation, the committee knew the end goal would be to hire more minorities, but in the short term, employees needed to learn how to better collaborate with each other. However, McCormick said he and others on the committee strongly believed off-the-shelf diversity training approaches to bring employees closer together would not be effective. They opted to build a more tailored in-house program instead.
“I’m a middle-class white male who has lived in the Midwest nearly all my life,” McCormick said. “From my perspective, the traditional diversity training from the ’70s and ’80s is usually about how those in the minority have been disadvantaged, implying the majority need to give up something. Not a very good way to engage the 80-plus percent of your audience.”
The result was “The Power of Perspectives,” a seven-hour workshop based partly on the work by Steve Robbins, a psychologist with a background in cognitive neuroscience. Designed to help employees think differently, the program’s objectives are to examine “how nice, well-meaning people” engage in unintentional intolerance, and with that insight, learn how to become more open-minded to new people and novel ideas.
Anthony Estell, lead presenter for the program and director of the retirement office’s organizational support division, said the diversity committee was intrigued by Robbins’ explanation of how people can override their brain’s propensity to work most efficiently when on “autopilot” by actively engaging their brain to entertain new ideas.
“A simple analogy is when you’re walking in the woods and you hear a rustling behind the bushes next to you, your brain is wired that your initial response is it is some predator who could eat you for dinner,” Estell said. “The same response happens when people encounter new ideas, new people, new situations. But unfortunately in the modern world, those responses often aren’t appropriate.”
As such, “The Power of Perspectives” is completely contrary to traditional diversity training, which focuses on the differences between ethnic groups, he said. Instead, participants focus on themselves. They spend the first two days looking inward, examining how they think and experience things. They are reminded that people are the sum of their experiences, but they may have also formed some stereotypes along the way.
“We need to stop and take account of this, and listen when other people give answers — they may not represent how we think that they think and believe,” Estell said. “People should take the time to ask questions, and they might learn something.”
Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners Inc., a global management consulting firm based in New York City, agreed that traditional diversity training can backfire because it not only breaks people into categories, but also it actually reinforces those categories and solidifies stereotypes. Instead, Bregman advocates management and communication training that teaches “how to have real conversations with real people,” with “courage, empathy and assertiveness.”
“For example, most people, when they get angry, they shut down or blow up,” he said. “Instead, we teach people how to talk and listen to each other without getting triggered and lashing out. We teach them how to connect by teaching them how to truly listen and think from the other person’s perspective. We get them to see the real person, not the group, which helps them foster real relationships. That kind of training triples your return; it solves your diversity problem, it improves people’s ability to communicate in general and it avoids the under-the-table ridicule that tends to accompany traditional diversity programs.”
In late 2008, Robbins trained 10 percent of the retirement department, about 30 people representing the top three management levels. Then, he certified another handful, including Estell, so they could train in-house.
In 2009, McCormick and his team began to roll out the program to all 850 department employees, but when the administration changed under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, he said “the fiscal priorities changed.” In 2010, the training program continued for just the retirement office, which has 150 employees. Currently, all new retirement office employees are trained.
A second training program, “Forging Breakthroughs,” was rolled out in March 2012 to give employees additional skills to engage in conversations, entertain new perspectives and consider alternatives to challenges. Reinforcing activities for the concepts in both programs take the form of follow-up team exercises, targeted communication and workplace visual reminders, and employees receive recognition tokens, or “POP Tops,” whenever they display appropriate behaviors.
To measure the impact of the training programs and reinforcement activities, a survey of state employees was conducted in spring 2012, and results for the retirement office employees were compared with those for the entire Department of Technology and Budget and the state of Michigan, as well as benchmark data for the service industry and “best-in-class” companies.
In response to the survey statement, “My work group has a climate in which diverse perspectives are encouraged and valued,” 77 percent of the retirement office employees said “yes,” compared with 66 percent of department employees and 55 percent of state employees overall. The benchmark percentage for the service industry was 74 percent.
More than half (54 percent) of the retirement office employees agreed with the statement, “My work group has a climate in which diverse perspectives are encouraged and valued,” compared with 43 percent of the department employees and 34 percent of state employees overall. The benchmark for the service industry was 59 percent.
The retirement office now tries to operate with a common vocabulary, with employees self-monitoring their behaviors when they may be blocking new concepts, Estell said. “This helps people be more open-minded when considering ideas, and since the majority of people have been through this training, they know what those terms mean, and that facilitates innovation.”
The training programs are also helping employees forge more collaborative solutions, which McCormick said helps many of the retirement office’s overall objectives. The retirement office administers retirement programs for Michigan’s state employees, public school employees, judges and state police, totaling more than 580,000 customers. Within these systems, the office administers four defined benefit pension plans, two defined contribution pension plans and one defined benefit plus defined contribution plan with combined net assets of more than $50 billion.
The training programs help employees brainstorm strategies to adhere to substantial legislative reforms and incentives pertaining to public pensions in a very short time, Estell said. People within the system had 50 days to choose whether they wanted a subsidized or defined contribution health care option. Some also had to choose between their current pension plan with an increased contribution, a reduced plan at their current contribution or a defined contribution plan.
“These reforms and incentives all required extensive communication with customers — our largest customer group being employees of the 700 public school districts around the state — as well as significant changes to our business processes and IT system in an extremely short, inflexible time frame,” he said. “This training is helping us talk to each other, to better develop solutions that can meet these needs.”
McCormick said the training programs also helped him personally when he was discussing an issue involving pensions with a union leader and having little success getting her to entertain a new idea.
“I could hear her starting to get defensive, so I decided to honor her and our relationship by listening, acknowledging her concerns and asking clarifying questions,” he said. “When she was done, I asked her what conclusion she had come to about my motives. She said that I didn’t want our ‘dirty laundry aired.’”
Though that was a reasonable response, McCormick told her he wasn’t concerned about image; he wanted published meeting minutes to accurately reflect the content of the meeting and management’s position.
“Because we had both been trained in the ‘Forging Breakthroughs’ skills, she was patient as I unpacked my point of view, and she didn’t see it as a manipulative technique,” McCormick said. “I went on to recall times where I perceived our communication in labor-management meetings was not effective and why I thought an alternative approach would help us both. The end result was positive and has set the stage for improved relationships with the local union leadership.”
There can be potential roadblocks to this type of training, however. McCormick said he and his peers worried that not all the leaders had the right skills to teach this type of training using cognitive toolkits. “We relied on Anthony (Estell) a lot more initially than we thought we would. We’re not sure everybody got a consistent experience.”
Further, McCormick said he is not sure whether Michigan’s particular approach would work for every organization or state. “Unless the executive leadership is truly committed and truly believes in the benefits of diversity and inclusion, an initiative of this scale would not be successful.”
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.