What's the best way for managers to ensure that employees are considerate of the differing needs of people in a diverse workplace?
If leaders can't get them to walk a mile in others' shoes, they should at least encourage them to try out a minority point of view in a training exercise, a U.S. research team suggests.
Merely talking about the importance of racial tolerance is not as effective as role playing in diversity training, says Margaret Shih, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, who conducted a revealing set of experiments with college students.
The study had a student walk down a hallway and drop a set of keys without apparently being aware of it, even though the keys fell with a notable clunk. What would a student observing this do?
To a startling degree, it depended on the race of the individual who dropped the keys, said Prof. Shih, who did the research with Elsie Wang of Tufts University and Rebecca Stotzer of the University of Hawaii.
When the key dropper was white, 16 of 20 students, all non-Asian, either helpfully called attention to the keys or retrieved them.
When the key dropper was Asian, however, less than half the white students offered help without prodding from the experimenters who were observing.
Even though the test sample was small, the statistical likelihood that the results were due to chance was less than one in 100, Prof. Shih said.
Even more startling was that the key-dropping incidents occurred after students had watched a video clip depicting in a sympathetic way the experiences of Asian-Americans.
In a subsequent experiment, 40 white students watched the same video but half received no follow-up, while the other half were taken to a room and asked to imagine themselves in the position of the Asian-American in the video and write a paragraph about it.
In this experiment, 90 per cent of those who had taken the perspective training came to the aid of both white and Asian students who lost their keys. But among those didn't get the experiential training, only five of 11 offered to help the Asian without prodding.
"It's a striking illustration of how deeply seated, almost reflexive, people's biases can be," Prof. Shih says. "And it highlights, too, the extent to which overcoming bias requires a conscious effort to identify with others. It suggests the value of exercises in the workplace that feature active perspective-taking, like role playing and problem solving."
The research will appear in the next issue of the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.