DEI Training and Branching Scenarios

DEI training is hard to do effectively. Creating branching scenarios for DEI training poses some challenges, but also potential solutions.

In the pilot of my Build Your Branching Scenario course, several participants picked DEI topics as the focus for their branching scenarios. This makes sense, as DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is both a popular topic for a lot of training right now, and a topic that often involves nuanced conversations. However, DEI topics pose some particular challenges for training, especially for branching scenarios.

DEI Training and Branching Scenarios

DEI training is hard to do well

First of all, DEI training is very challenging to do well.

More than training is needed

In the CLO article “Can you teach diversity and inclusion?” Kellye Whitney explains:

Training alone is rarely enough. Not when the subject matter is complex, controversial or comes packaged with a load of historically negative baggage, which diversity and inclusion does.

For diversity and inclusion training to stick, it needs support, reinforcement and a firm foundation in a broader talent management strategy that includes culture, leadership and learning and development.

-Kellye Whitney

So, let’s start with the assumption that training can be part of the solution, but it isn’t likely to be enough on its own. A one-shot training, even a branching scenario with some potential for replay, probably won’t have a large impact.

DEI training is often ineffective

Also, a lot of DEI training simply doesn’t work. In the Learning Guild research report What Works–and What Doesn’t–in Diversity Training, Jane Bozarth summarizes the problems. Mandatory training focused on increasing awareness generally doesn’t have much impact. In fact, sometimes DEI training actually creates backlash that makes issues worse. This is more likely if the training is mandatory or used as a punishment for poor behavior.

What works in DEI training

Focus on specific behaviors

Rather than focusing on awareness or implicit bias, what works better for DEI training is focusing on changing behavior. For example, Jane Bozarth’s report recommends “specific behavioral guidelines such as behavioral modeling” as a strategy supported by research. That means we have to shift to identifying what skills and behaviors we actually want to see and give people opportunities to practice those skills.

Julie Dirksen summarized a study done on a habit-based approach to DEI training that actually had some success in reducing racial bias. This was focused on specific behavioral strategies to shift their biased thinking.

[P]articipants engaged in five habit-based strategies to counteract their own implicit racial bias. This is important because participants watched for their own bias to show up and engaged in deliberately counteracting the incidents with one or more specific habit strategies. This gets at behavior rather than just intent.

-Julie Dirksen

Shift perspectives

Some research has found that shifting perspectives can be effective in DEI training. Taking the perspective of someone else, even virtually in training, can improve attitudes and change behaviors.

One training exercise that we analyzed, and that shows promise, is perspective-taking, which is essentially the process of mentally walking in someone else’s shoes. Results from our experiment involving 118 undergraduate students showed that taking the perspective of LGBT individuals or racial minorities — by writing a few sentences imagining the distinct challenges a marginalized minority might face — can improve pro-diversity attitudes and behavioral intentions toward these groups. These effects persisted even when outcomes were measured eight months after training. Even more exciting is the fact that perspective-taking was shown to be capable of producing crossover effects. In our experiment, taking the perspective of LBGT individuals was shown to be associated with more positive attitudes and behaviors toward racial minorities, and vice versa.

Two Types of Diversity Training That Really Work

DEI in Branching Scenarios

So, how do we apply this research to branching scenarios? Awareness training isn’t a good approach (and a hard fit for branching scenarios anyway because it tends not to be active). Plus, while branching scenarios often have the options to make bad choices, we probably don’t really want people “practicing” discriminatory behavior.

I see two ways to use branching scenarios for DEI training.

Behavior change

The first option is to focus on specific behaviors. We have to identify skills and behaviors which can be trained and practiced.

  • For example, you could pick a specific recruitment or retention strategy for increasing diversity and create a scenario to practice that strategy.
  • Bystander training is another topic that makes sense as a branching scenario. It could give people a way to practice interrupting biased jokes or responding to others who make discriminatory comments.
  • You could create a branching scenario around what to say and phrases to avoid, focusing on specific communication tactics. This would take some careful writing. I don’t think putting people in the perspective of deliberately harassing someone would be helpful (and might be harmful). But, I could see this working for topics like neurodivergence where the language has shifted a lot in recent years.

For branching scenarios, I find it’s really important to narrow down the behavior to something very specific. That applies to DEI topics too. It can’t just be about “effective communication with diverse teams.” The objective needs to be narrow, like “Use a 5-step process for bystander intervention to respond to offensive language in the workplace.”


A second option is to focus on shifting perspective. For example, you could have a branching scenario where learners are in the role of a trans person navigating the legal system. The choices could be about how to respond (e.g., shrug it off, respond angrily, gently correct, educate on better terminology). You could also have some of that character’s internal monologue like, “Geez, why is she so surprised to see someone in a dress? I can’t be the first trans woman she’s seen here at the courthouse getting a name change!”

Further reading

DEI is a huge topic, and it’s impossible to cover everything in a single blog post. Check out these resources for further reading. This includes the sources I mentioned above plus some additional reading.

Research on diversity training and changing behavior

Writing about DEI, creating scenarios

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