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Why Diversity Programs Fail

9 April 2018 at 8:19 am
Adam Blanch
Far from building bridges of understanding and respect, standard diversity programs can create psychological barriers by engendering an environment of fear and resentment, writes psychologist and behaviourist Adam Blanch.

Adam Blanch | 9 April 2018 at 8:19 am


Why Diversity Programs Fail
9 April 2018 at 8:19 am

Far from building bridges of understanding and respect, standard diversity programs can create psychological barriers by engendering an environment of fear and resentment, writes psychologist and behaviourist Adam Blanch.

A 2016 research article in the Harvard Business Review makes it clear that the majority of diversity programs and initiatives have the opposite effect. They reduce diversity and increase bias and discrimination in the workplace.

The research, which surveyed the outcomes of typical diversity initiatives in over 800 companies, found that the hiring of people from diverse groups reduced because of the initiatives.

They surveyed for the effect of three types of programs – mandatory diversity trainings, grievance policies and job tests. Caucasian women suffered small decreases, while Black, Hispanic and Asian people experienced reductions of up to 11 per cent, with the greatest losses going to Asian and Black males.

But why?

From a psychological point of view this is understandable. Standard diversity programs typically take a “blame and shame” approach that target the majority group with negative messages about their power, privilege and behaviours. This is experienced by them as an attack on their personal and social validity, and produces a predictable resistance, resentment and desire to disengage with the issue. 

Far from building bridges of understanding and respect, they create psychological barriers by engendering (pun intended) an environment of fear and resentment. This leads to managers choosing to avoid hiring from diverse populations because they don’t want the “headache” of having to deal with their diversity. 

To be honest, this should be obvious. When we divide people into separate groups, create different sets of rules for those groups, morally prosecute one group and artificially try to advantage another, we are going to produce resentment. When we try to mandate behaviour and attitudes in human beings, they typically react by finding subtle and often unconscious ways to assert their free will by defying those mandates.

An ancient problem

This isn’t just true of managers either. Line staff also disengage with their colleagues, leading to the development of workplace “silos” that reduces morale and collaboration. This is also predictable. If history teaches us anything about human beings it is that we form tribes based primarily on our similarities to each other. A tribe can form around almost any distinction including race, gender, age, religion, language, sexual orientation, nationality, football team, subculture or beliefs.

This is a safety behaviour by which we try to predict who is likely to support us and who is likely to threaten us or compete with us for resources. The greater the difference, the greater the fear we experience. No one is immune to this phenomenon (no matter what they say), and it is quite resistant to conscious influence, for the simple reason that it starts deep in the reptilian “threat response” part of our brain.

The more secure people feel, the less active this primitive cognitive system becomes and the more likely they are to be inclusive, generous and collaborative with people who display difference. Tribalism is a response to fear, so if we wish to reduce discrimination, we need to reduce fear and threat.

Standard diversity initiatives do exactly the opposite. By challenging those with (relative) power and privilege they become a threat to those people. By working to induce negative emotion such as shame, guilt and remorse they are directly activating the parts of the brain that induce this tribalism response and creating emotional experiences that are aversive. It’s a bit like trying to stop a dog being aggressive by kicking it. At best, it produces a temporary submission reaction, but in the long term it increases the dog’s belief that it needs to be aggressive.

What’s the solution?

As far back as World War II social psychologists were telling us that what makes a cohesive community of diverse individuals is emphasising the commonalities between us and giving diverse people the opportunity to work together towards a common goal.

For all our differences in appearance, culture, beliefs and behaviours human beings share common aspirations, basic values and needs. When we focus on these and give people ways to engage compassionately with their own human tendencies towards tribalism and bias, we can create a culture of collaboration and understanding.

The Harvard research suggests some effective ways to increase diversity. The first is to create voluntary entry points for people to engage with the issue. This provides those in positions of relative privilege the opportunity to act on their own egalitarian values without being socially vilified or compelled to do so.

Initiatives that are proven to consistently produce significant increases in diversity include voluntary diversity trainings, diversity committees (with representation from all groups) and mentoring programs that match privileged mentors to minority mentees. Tertiary recruitment strategies, cross training and self-managed teams have also been shown to have a moderate effect.


It seems to me that the “bogey-man” of the privileged majority who resist equality and diversity is largely a myth, except possibly among the least privileged of the “majority” whose security is unstable and under threat. That’s why politicians who advocate for discrimination, segregation and immigration reductions find most of their supporters among the poor majority.

Most people want a world that is fair, merit based and peaceful, but they usually want to create one in ways that aren’t going to reduce or threaten their own security and opportunities. The good news is that this is possible, because economic and social welfare don’t have to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers.

When we empower people to empower others, we grow everyone’s prosperity, creativity and productivity – which means more for everyone.

If we really want to increase diversity I believe we need to stop treating the “privileged” as a problem to be punished and controlled, and instead give them opportunity to voluntarily use their privilege in egalitarian and creative ways that increases privilege for all.

About the author: Adam Blanch is a psychologist and behaviourist who provides practical insights and support to strengthen leaders and their teams. He is a practitioner within The Xfactor Collective social impact practitioner community. For more information and contact details visit

Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to

Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.

Adam Blanch  |  @ProBonoNews

Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia.

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