By Melissa J. Anderson

How can companies generate buy-in amongst majority stakeholders (white men) about the importance of diversity? According to new research, the answer may be to position diversity as a critical leadership capacity, and train them with the skills to navigate diversity effectively. The net result is better managers and a better work culture in which individuals of every background can thrive.

“It’s really critical to engage men, and white men in particular, because diversity and inclusion efforts tend to be framed primarily around women and people from ethnic and racial minority groups,” said Catalyst’s Jeanine Prime, Vice President of Research.

“But white men tend to hold the majority of the positions of power and influence in organizations. We can’t expect to change cultures of these organizations without them being fully engaged. That’s why Catalyst is doing research on men’s engagement in diversity and inclusion and why we launched MARC,” the organization’s online learning community for men who are committed to achieving equality in the workplace.

In fact, the organization’s latest report, “Calling All White Men: Can Training Help Create Inclusive Workplaces,” suggests that by training white men with the tools to approach diversity positively (rather than implying blame), companies can see big results in a short amount of time.

Catalyst worked with Rockwell Automation, a global engineering company, sending white men in its North American sales division to learning labs about white men’s role in leading diversity and inclusion efforts. These men showed improvements on five measures: “critical thinking” about differences, “taking responsibility for being inclusive,” “inquiring across differences,” “empathetic listening,” and “addressing difficult/emotionally charged issues.”

“I was really surprised we that there was measurable change in such a short time frame,” Prime remarked. The team surveyed participants a week before the lab, one month later, and then four months later, and found progress at each step. “At each survey point we found participants were really making improvements in their behaviors, and increasingly acknowledged white male privilege.”

She continued, “That the program could produce such a shift is a testament to the approach. It’s not about shaming or blaming white men, but calling them to leadership and inviting them to play a central role in creating inclusive work environments.”

Changing Attitudes and Behaviors

In the months after the labs, surveys showed that gossip and workplace incivility decreased on teams to which the white men who attended the workshops belonged. According to Prime, the reason comes down to how the labs were developed. Rather than being a seminar or lecture about diversity, the labs were designed to teach critical thinking and communication skills, to impart tools that enable people to work better with people who are different than them.

“I think one result of the labs was just all around better communication skills,” she explained. “Participants learned to have conversations and make inquiries about how people were different from them and to address difficult issues and conflict better. People learned to address colleagues more directly.”

She added, “It’s worth noting that incivility is something that women and people from ethnic or racial minority groups experience more, so this change was really critical to creating a more inclusive work culture.”

Similarly, the results showed that after the labs, participants were more likely to acknowledge the presence of white male privilege – and a few months later, the rate of acknowledgement grew. “This was a really powerful finding,” Prime said. “Beliefs about inequality are really impervious to change.”

Once again, she explained, the reason behind the result is the program’s methodology. “One of the skills that participants learn is about critical thinking about differences – asking questions, searching for data, hypothesis testing about issues. People continue to reflect on what they’d learned, both in the workplace and at home. I think this is why we continue to see growth.”

“I’d add that Rockwell really put the necessary supports in place to fuel this growth, providing opportunities to connect and opportunities to practice,” she noted.

Making Inclusion about Leadership

Men, and particularly white men, have tended to avoid diversity initiatives in the past. “I think that often implicit in the diversity strategies of some organizations is that white men are framed as a problem.”

To really engage them, Prime continued, organizations need to move past that mindset. “I think it’s important for white men to hear that while they are not responsible for inequality, they do have a responsibility to take an active role in creating an inclusive work environment.”

The change in attitudes and behavior spread beyond the office, Prime noted. People who went to the labs said they learned not just how to work better with people who were different than them, but also how to work better with other white men, and communicate with people outside the workplace like friends, wives, daughters, and other family members.

Prime also emphasized the importance of framing diversity training around leadership. “It’s not just about helping women or people from diverse backgrounds. It’s really about fundamental leadership skills. The people who went to the labs felt they were better leaders because of it.”

At a time when business is becoming more complex, global, and diverse, the ability to lead people from different backgrounds is key for anyone who aspires to a top job. “Developing diversity as a bench strength is critical,” she explained.

Finally, she added that because the labs are designed to help break down barriers created by difference, ultimately they’ll help put women and people in minority groups on the path to leadership as well. White men, because they are the majority of people in power, are likely the individuals who can do the most in terms of sponsorship and career advocacy.

“It helps dismantle the myth of meritocracy,” she said. “People begin to see how exclusive networks among members of certain groups affect others, and they become motivated to reach across group boundaries.”

She added, “It speaks to the power of the approach of treating white men as part of the solution and really calling on them in having a leadership role in diversity. I hope other companies will be as courageous as Rockwell has in this approach.”