Chasing Rainbows

Andrew Ferguson
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From the July/August 1994 issue

TEN YEARS AGO, NOBODY CALLED himself a “diversity trainer.” Today, there are some 5,000 nationwide, with more hanging out their shingles daily; almost all management-consulting firms employ people who specialize in diversity. The trainers or “facilitators” trace the origins of their profession to 1987, when a think-tank called the Hudson Institute released a report, “Workforce 2000,” predicting that by the end of the century only 15 percent of those entering the work force would be American-born white males.

“Workforce 2000” was taken as a firebell in the night by many American-born white male businessmen: It happened to General Custer, it can happen to us!

Most Fortune 500 companies have undertaken diversity training for their senior managers and large segments of their work force. In Washington, the area’s largest employers local utilities, private corporations like MCI and Marriott, county and state governments, an alphabet soup of federal agencies from the FBI to the NRC to DOT have done likewise. The format differs from company to company, but most often diversity training entails gathering employees and managers for sessions ranging from two hours to three days. They hear lectures and watch videos on cultural diversity, play games to heighten their “cultural awareness,” do experiential exercises” to sensitize them to the feelings of others, and then “dialogue” and “process information” in group discussions.

All of which costs companies a great deal of money. The demand for diversity-training nonetheless outstrips supply; trainers are routinely booked months in advance. Most cam 51,500 to $2,000 a day; a medium-sized work force could take a month or more to train. Long-range contracts of $500,000 a year are common.

It’s nice work if you can get it. And almost anyone can. There is no certification to qualify diversity trainers no tests to study for, no dissertations to prove your expertise. To become a trainer, you have only to call yourself one and hope that a network of Mends, colleagues and potential clients spreads the word. Few trainers have a background in business. A degree in one of the softer sciences-education, sociology, organizational development is nice but not essential.

Nor is a large capital outlay required to set up shop. Mail-order houses offer packages of “diversity materials”: workbooks and worksheets ($99-95 and up), board games ($75 and up), transparencies for overhead projectors ($12). Videos a requirement for any trainer’s kitbag do cost more: for example, “Competing Through Managing Diversity,” a new two-part video by the mahatma of diversity training, R. Roosevelt Thomas of More-house College in Atlanta, costs $2,000. Even so, a fully equipped diversity trainer can be in the black after his first day’s work.

“I lecture at colleges and universities,” says Dr. Lennox Joseph, a management consultant in Alexandria, “and students will often ask me how to get started in consulting. I tell them, ‘If you want to make a large amount of money in a very short period of time, go into diversity.'”

SO YOU HAVE YOUR WORKBOOK and worksheets, your videos and transparencies, a board game or two-. You are a diversity consultant, no? That depends. Every diversity consultant requires something more-, the dogma of diversity a closed system of business jargon, left-wing politics, and the techniques of the human-potential movement.

Diversity training is a purely American phenomenon; it is impossible to imagine the French, say, or the Spanish, much less the Serbs, devoting large amounts of time and money to such an endeavor. But the American businessman is unique. (Note to language police: I use “businessman” as a gender-neutral term.) He has created the most prosperous society in history, owing largely to his tenacity, cleverness and attention to the demands of his customers. But move him from the concrete world of profit and loss into the abstract realm of ideas, and his hard-headedness vanishes. This is a kind way of saying that some businessmen will fell for almost anything, so long as it is packaged as a boon to commerce.

A quick scan of the business bookshelf at the local B. Dalton or Crown Books testifies to the feet. There you’ll find the successors to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. These books are put together with an elegant simplicity. A platitude say, “A successful manager is one who is sensitive to new and unexpected competitive pressures” is teased into 200 pages of anecdotes, pie charts, tables and bold-faced type. A catch phrase, preferably including the words “leadership” and “management,” is attached as a title. Thus: The West Point Way of Leadership, Enlightened Leadership, Liberation Management, Total Behavior Management, Managing Quality, Total Quality Leadership, and even Management by Auerbach, from Red Auerbach.

For the George Babbitts of the 1990s, these books hold an almost taiismanic power. In cold black and white, buried among the buzz-word prose and the diagrams, is the secret of making it: creating the corporation of the next century- in five simple steps that turn challenge into opportunity! The books are bought in large numbers and are read with biblical devotion. Walk the aisle of the Metroliner or the Delta shuttle and you’ll see the middle managers slip their Parker Roller Balls from their two-button pinstripes and make little checks and exclamation points next to such sentences as: “Individuals must be helped to explore ways of facilitating mutual adaptation on the part of the individual and the organization.” The charts and graphs, lending an air of scientific rigor to the mysticism, are pored over with furrowed brow. Thus is the secret passed on.

IT WAS INEVITABLE THAT THIS suggestibility of the American businessman would get mixed up with another American phenomenon, the human-potential movement, also known as the New Age. At first, encounter groups and est and primal therapy and transcendental meditation drew their adherents from the flotsam and jetsam of 1960s America, from runaway Radciiffe coeds and dispirited professors who had taken to wearing sideburns and Birkenstocks when the mid-life crisis hit. They were after the secret to happiness, spiritual integration, the peak experience and pop-psych wizards like Abraham Maslow and Fritz Perls told them it could be found by talking, fluently and endlessly, about oneself and one’s feelings. Talk could “break down barriers,” shape little dramas out of our lives. And what made the dramas so intoxicating was that the hero was . . . me! From Esalen and Marin County and Topanga Canyon, the word went forth: Let’s talk!

In time this came to be called “sharing,” a euphemism that imparted an altruistic flavor to what an earlier age might have called self-indulgence or whining. As it turned out, antique notions of self-restraint held many back, so facilitators developed techniques to loosen up the squares: simulations and role playing and games to break down the barriers.

And it worked! In encounter groups the talk poured out in a Niagara, about my feelings and your feelings, about my feelings about your feelings about me. No secret was too dark, too private to be shared. Communication was therapy, openness the ultimate virtue. A refusal to share, even after all the simulations and role-playing, could only be a symptom of pathology, usually called denial. Reticence replaced sin; therapy became salvation.

From Norman Vincent Peak to Thomas Harris, from The Power of Positive Thinking to I’m Okay You’re Okay it is not so long a leap. The secret of Dynamic Managing and Teamtbmk was conflated with the secret of personal growth. For the business to grow, the businessman must grow. By the late 1980s, senior managers at most Fortune 500 companies were veteran work-shoppers. They had been on team-building retreats where facilitators wrapped them in blindfolds and led them around on leashes. They had hit each Other over the head with foam-rubber baseball bats. They had been made to sit on one another’s laps and speak the secrets of their hearts. In one popular exercise, the managers passed around a roll of toilet paper with their teeth. A consensus had been reached: The old ways were ill-suited for the New Age.

THE HISTRIONICS OF PERSONAL growth and the gullibility of businessmen make for a powerful combination. But together they are not sufficient to explain diversity training. A final ingredient must be added: politics.

As the New Age crept into corporate boardrooms, another evolution was taking place. Leaders in the battle for civil rights had, from the earliest stages, concentrated on specific acts of discrimination, particularly those flowing from laws and practices that denied citizens access to basic rights and services. This is the spirit that animated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In implementation, however, government anti-discrimination policy took a subtle turn. Discrimination came to be defined not as discrete acts of malice against individuals, but as a historical pattern embedded in organizations and in society at large. Racism, in this view, was structural, woven into America’s institutions, and deeply embedded in the way Americans were raised and character was formed. Civil lawsuits, Supreme Court rulings, and punishments meted out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hammered the point home: Remedies for structural racism also had to be structural, in the form of preferential hiring for members of aggrieved groups, through goals, timetables and informal quotas.

And the charge of discrimination was the least of it. For where there was a charge, there was a lawsuit lurking, too, probably a class-action suit and horrid publicity. Between 1970 and 1989, the number of discrimination suits in federal courts rose by 2,100 percent Punitive-damage judgments can run into the millions.

The smart employer, especially one with government contracts, is prepared to show he has gone that extra mile not merely to make his work force look like America, but also to change the culture of the company, or at least make people think he’s changing it.

THE LITERATURE OF DIVERSITY training tells the trainer what to watch for as he herds his subjects through consciousness-changing. Of particular concern are “majority members,” defined as “I. European Americans; 2. Men; 3-Heterosexuals; 4. Non-handicapped people; etc.” Babbitts, to sum up.

At the first stage, the “Contact Stage,” the majority member is “in-denial.” He “tends to assume that racist and cultural differences are unimportant” He “believes that everyone is the same”; he “believes in the melting pot theory of assimilation.”

Before long, if the training goes according to plan, he will progress to the “Disintegration Stage.” in which “guilt may emerge.” Now he “wants to be seen as an individual and not a member of any group,” and he says things like, “I am not like most men. I am very sensitive to the needs of women.”

Then on to Stage 3= “Reintegration.” Now our subject “shows a tendency to internalize positive attitudes about majority groups as victims of reverse discrimination.” He still “believes we are all the same,” and he prattles on: “1 believe that quotas of any kind are wrong.”

And so on through Stage 4. “Pseudo-independence” “believes that discrimination is a problem of the uneducated” until the final change of consciousness, Stage 5: “Autonomy.” Now he “accepts, respects, and appreciates both minority and majority individuals.” Even better, he is given to making statements like this: “I am a recovering sexist.”

Wait till the guys around the water cooler hear that! But Autonomy is an open-ended stage, for the new-consciousness Babbitt also believes: “I accept the ‘onion theory’ that I will continue to peel away layers of my own racism for the rest of my life.” The work, in other words, continues forever. Which makes those long-range, $500,000-a-year contracts absolutely imperative.

DIVERSITY TRAINER, WHEN HE’S rolling, can offer up an almost infinite list of the ways we are all different Aside from the obvious race, sex and ethnicity the diversity trainer will tell you about hair and eye color, left-handedness or right-handedness, geographic background, age, weight, marital status.

But in truth, there is one great divide separating us placing on one side of the chasm people who sit in a circle and play experiential games and do personal-growth exercises and then talk about their feelings at great length, and people who don’t. This divide cuts across lines of class and sex and age and ethnicity. And there’s no question to switch metaphors who’s got the upper hand The naturally reticent, the people who cling to old notions of privacy and personal dignity, who are uneasy about turning the gridiron of American commerce into Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, will either give in or be left behind.

What a curious thing this white-male power structure is! The revolution proceeds without a shot being fired. In the history of power structure, the white-male power structure of late-20th century America is the first actually to pay people to dismantle itself.

Excerpted from the April 1994 Washingtonian. Copyright ® 1994 by Washingtonian Magazine, Inc.