A meta-analytic evaluation of diversity training outcomes across cultures

Employees discussing at a workplace

How well does diversity training work in different countries?  Originating in the United States (US), diversity training is now practised in many countries. The key objective of diversity training is to increase awareness and understanding of diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and cultures within a workplace, facilitating productive collaboration among employees from various backgrounds. However, a diversity programme that has been effective in one country might not be successful in another due to the cultural differences between countries.

To address this issue, Prof Xi Zou and Shota Kawasaki from Nanyang Business School conducted a meta-analysis to examine the influence of national cultures on diversity training. The product of this research was a paper titled ‘A meta-analytic evaluation of diversity training outcomes across cultures’, which aimed to summarise when and why diversity training is effective or ineffective.

Prof Zou explains the intentions behind her research: “Organisations invest a lot of resources into diversity training globally, but we do not know how a country’s cultural values influence the outcomes of diversity training. Furthermore, the existing literature is very American-centric, with limited studies on diversity training outside America.”

Design Features of Diversity Training Programmes

To conduct the research, Prof Zou and Shota Kawasaki examined published papers with participants both within and outside the US. First, they compared the following six design features of diversity training programmes conducted in the US and those outside the US: setting, approach, attendance, focus, type, and instruction. Although overall effect sizes did not significantly differ between the samples inside and outside of the US, they found significant differences in four design features. 

Illustration showing the design features of diversity training programs

First, the effect size of diversity training in an educational setting was significantly larger for the US samples than for the non-US samples. Second, the US samples had a larger effect size for stand-alone training than the non-US samples did. Third, for the one-group diversity training, the US samples showed a greater effect size than the non-US samples did. Fourth, the awareness-based training had a significant, positive effect size among the US samples, but a nonsignificant effect among the non-US samples.

Prof Zou notes that “Awareness-based training, which focuses on increasing employees’ awareness of biases and stereotypes toward minority groups, seems to be effective within the US, but not outside of it. Furthermore, it is even more counter-productive in countries with high power distance, collectivism, and uncertainty avoidance.”

Cross-cultural Differences in Diversity Training

To determine the effectiveness of diversity training design features, the researchers also explored the participants’ nationality by examining various cultural dimensions such as openness to change, self-enhancement, and power distance.

Their results revealed that self-enhancement and indulgence are significantly associated with the overall effects of diversity training. That is, diversity training was more effective in countries characterised by high self-enhancement, where individuals value the pursuit of personal interests and dominance over others, as well as in countries with high indulgence, where people freely satisfy their individual needs and desires.

People having conflict while working

The research findings also suggest that merely raising awareness of biases and stereotypes can be perceived as a challenge to traditional values in certain cultures, leading to resistance to change and advancing minorities. For example, in countries with high power distance, such as Malaysia and Singapore, hierarchical relationships and status are highly valued. Thus, there is greater tolerance for power inequality. Whereas, in collectivistic societies such as China and Japan, consistency and equal treatment for individuals are highly valued. For high uncertainty avoidance cultures, such as Spain and South Korea, there is a greater tendency towards in-group bias, favouring familiar groups over those who are less familiar. Therefore, awareness-based diversity training might not be as effective in these cultures, particularly when the programme is not appropriately tailored to the specific culture.

Notably, the researchers found that awareness-based training can be effective outside the US when paired with behaviour-based training. This latter type of training is designed to educate employees on effective interactions with individuals from diverse backgrounds, enabling them to monitor their actions and behave appropriately in intercultural settings. Thus, it is vital that organisations understand the country’s culture and their employees’ backgrounds before designing a diversity training programme.

Prof Zou explains that the “best diversity training practice differs across cultures. In collectivistic cultures, awareness-based diversity training is less effective than in individualistic cultures. Singling out marginalised members and their needs can threaten group harmony, which could result in more stress and unintended negative consequences in collectivistic cultures.”

Colleagues having a team building

How Can Organisations Design an Ideal Diversity Training Programme?

Prof Zou and Mr Kawasaki recommend that organisations enrich their diversity training by adding more elements to skill and behaviour training. Recent research suggests that companies can incorporate role-playing or behaviour-modelling exercises into diversity training. They can also include perspective-taking and goal setting to practice communication with diverse individuals or implement a mentorship workshop to develop employees’ competence in supervising and collaborating with mentees from minority groups. Through behaviour training, employers can gather minority opinions and decide on a set of best practices or behaviours, which can then be used for training and shared internally.

Prof Zou notes the vital importance of leadership in diversity training: “I believe it is important to have a leader endorsing these best practices when educating employees to display inclusive behaviour and respect diversity. If the leader does not exemplify those behaviours or lead by example, then the training will be unsuccessful.”  

Note: This research paper was published by the Social and Personality Psychology Compass on 15 March 2023.

Xi Zou is currently an Associate Professor at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She received a PhD from Columbia Business School in the United States. Her research draws on social psychology to understand how culture and motivation shape people's judgments, decision-making, and behaviours, and the implications for interpersonal dynamics and job performance.

Shota Kawasaki is a PhD student in Leadership, Management, and Organization at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His current research interests pertain to the influence of organizational cultures on employee well-being and performance.