How to Avoid Backlash in Equity and Inclusion Training

A woman appears frustrated while looking into the camera and pointing straight ahead.

When done correctly, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) training can inspire deep, purposeful change that creates inclusive, high functioning teams and organizations. Unfortunately, this outcome isn’t a given.

Many well-meaning organizations adopt JEDI initiatives without being prepared to face challenges that may arise. Our research shows there are even specific leadership behaviours that are more likely to inspire backlash and lead to equity-oriented training that fails to promote meaningful change.

Avoid having your organization become a victim to a similar outcome. Whether your company is looking for or engaging in JEDI training, this resource will highlight the five common traps your company should avoid to clear the path for an easy, effective, equity-oriented training.

1. Backlash is Not Anticipated

Although backlash is undesirable – it’s also unavoidable. Educators and leaders often forget that humans are emotional creatures and the process of change will naturally trigger emotional reactions. This is especially true for JEDI issues. The key to navigating resistance is to become aware of its potential, to anticipate its arrival and to incorporate mitigation strategies into the planning and execution of JEDI initiatives.

Doing so will help ready you to meet the moment with compassion, understanding and presence.

A person with long hair is looking down into clasped hands, upset, as someone standing behind them rests their hands on their shoulders.

2. Emotions are Underestimated

There are always big feelings in any equity training context because it touches our identities — our core being — and these feelings govern our actions. Neuroscience research has demonstrated unequivocally that our emotions influence our behaviours more than our thoughts, and this is especially true when engaging in JEDI issues. That means we need to address the emotions in the room first in order to create a productive space to learn. Unfortunately, most leaders and trainers underestimate emotions, believing that sharing compelling cognitive ideas will result in behavioural change. But this is not the case.

Relying on logic and cognition to tackle deeply emotional topics like racial or gender justice only exacerbates feelings of resistance among participants. To reduce backlash, it’s critical to welcome emotions into your JEDI training and communications. As we discuss in our post 10 Success Factors for JEDI Training, when you acknowledge participants’ feelings, you create a psychologically safe container that allows them to feel seen and heard as they move through this work.

3. Shame and Blame are Activated

JEDI trainings often unintentionally activate feelings shame and blame by overemphasizing negative consequences, morality or history. This can lead to feelings of defensiveness, guilt, anger, fear or impatience. These emotions may cause people to shut down or inspire feelings of resistance among staff.

As mentioned above, in order to keep everyone meaningfully engaged it’s important to use the psychologically safe environment you’ve created to help everyone feel able to participate, regardless of their dominant or non-dominant identities. JEDI trainings should promote JEDI literacy and practical skills development without using shame as a motivator. Instead, your organization should aim to select trainings that develop psychological and emotional intelligence and are led by educators who can embody the principles they are teaching.

A person with a beads looks at a laptop screen, frustrated, with their hands over on their head.

4. Urgency Comes Before Literacy

Many anti-racism/anti-oppression trainings unconsciously emphasize urgency rather than equity literacy. Although the issues of race, gender and identity are urgent, over-emphasizing the hurt and harm cause by systemic injustice can backfire by triggering those feelings of shame and blame. From Anima’s experience and internal data, we know that embracing a literacy framework is far more effective in advancing JEDI goals. Like language literacy, equity literacy takes time. It requires people to learn how to identify systemic patterns of racial or gender bias, and to see things from a new perspective in order to learn and unlearn.

Trainings driven by a sense of urgency can also inspire performative actions that are mismatched with organizational goals or values. Truly transformative change requires us to be deeply present while acknowledging that change is an ongoing process, not a one-off moment.

5. The Environment Lacks Trust

Workplace culture is the most important factor in determining how JEDI trainings are received. It would be a mistake to blame the JEDI training if it doesn’t “stick” when your organizational culture may be the culprit. Low trust environments often sabotage efforts because you’re likely to receive backlash fueled by existing organizational dysfunction or from manager-employee tensions. Training often surfaces the hidden (or not so hidden) issues within your organizational context that may require you to spend some time creating trusting relationships and psychological safety so that your JEDI training can grow in a fertile environment.

Now you know what to avoid… what’s next?

Equity-based trainings are an important tool in our path towards more inclusive workplace cultures. But in order to inspire positive change, we need those JEDI programs that work. By watching for and avoiding these common traps, you’ll be better equipped to select a successful JEDI training that creates the kind of change your organization is hoping to achieve.

For more on how you can transform your workplace into a more equitable environment integrating all of these best practices, join our Deep Diversity Summer Institute.

Anima Leadership

Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.

Since 2007, we have worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations teaching, consulting and coaching transformative change. Our award-winning training programs and innovative measurement tools will help us journey with you from diversity basics to advanced belonging.

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