Commentary & Opinion

Think You Need Cultural Sensitivity Training? Think Again

By Susana Rinderle

May. 10, 2018

I’ve been getting more requests for cultural sensitivity training lately.

The scenario is almost always the same: Manager has a habit of saying inappropriate things to staff or customers. One day, one of those staff members or customers files a complaint, or shares evidence of the bad behavior on social media (or both). The organization then launches a frantic search for “cultural sensitivity training” for the offending manager.

If your organization is on such a frantic search, or would like to avoid being in that position, these are the inconvenient truths that will actually solve your problem. Usually, “cultural sensitivity training” won’t.

Training is a solution only if lack of knowledge or skills is the problem. Does the manager know what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate? If they do and they’re behaving inappropriately anyway, then training won’t fix the problem — you need accountability and progressive discipline (or termination). If they don’t, training may actually help. But if this is the case, the manager’s gap in knowledge and skills raises two questions: (1) How were they never onboarded or trained properly in the first place? (2) How were they hired or promoted into a leadership position without first possessing necessary basic skills in empathy, emotional intelligence and effective communication? The answers likely point to systems flaws that must be addressed to avoid similar problems.

Trainers can’t do a manager’s job. Trainers cannot hold your staff or leaders accountable for doing appropriate behaviors in the workplace. That’s their boss’s job.

If a person has been allowed to treat people inappropriately over time with no meaningful consequences, the problem is a lack of leadership and accountability in your organization. Leaders who allow a handful of people, or one person, to bully and disrespect others, bring down morale and put your reputation and revenue at stake are poor leaders. They are stifling productivity and innovation and creating risk and liability for your entire organization.

Take a stand for your excellent employees, your mission, and your future, and put a stop to the inappropriate behavior. It’s a sad fact that many capable people who excel at their jobs are rewarded by being promoted into a new role (leadership) that requires an entirely different skillset. Leadership is difficult, and it’s not a fit for everyone. If you’re struggling with being a fair yet decisive leader who holds people to high standards, examine your willingness to grow and get mentoring and coaching if you are.

“Cultural sensitivity training” is insensitive, insulting and “old school.” Sensitivity should not be your goal. It’s results. Behaviors that disrupt or destroy an inclusive culture get in the way of results. Behaviors that interfere significantly with people bringing their best selves to work should not be tolerated, and only accountability makes this happen. “Sensitivity training” rarely provides people with clear behavioral guidelines and communication skills. It can encourage an eggshell-walking culture that reinforces a power imbalance and the patronizing notion that non-dominant groups (women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.) are fragile and need special handling. It doesn’t usually invite them into exploring their own power and opportunities to build skills while dominant groups are being taught to be more “sensitive” by confronting their blind spots and negative impacts.

A more effective approach starts with (again) asking the right questions: Did the person know the behavior was inappropriate? If not, what larger issues lead to the gap? How will the person be equipped to be more effective moving forward, and held accountable for doing so? Also, what opportunities does this situation present in terms of our work culture? How can we give each other feedback about a boundary being crossed? How can we all take ownership for our experience in creating an inclusive culture that’s appropriately mistake-tolerant? A skilled facilitator can help you explore these questions together, and an effective trainer can help your team develop more skills to bridge behavioral gaps. “Sensitivity” may be an intention, but should not be the goal.

Cultural sensitivity training doesn’t cure an a**hole. Intent does not equal impact. Sometimes “good” people do and say “bad” things because we weren’t thinking or didn’t realize the negative impact of our actions.

Once provided with feedback about the impact of our behavior, and the reasons for that impact, emotionally healthy and psychologically mature people take in the information, mend the relationship and adjust their behavior. People who are unwilling or unable to see other perspectives, insist on the “rightness” of their bad behavior, demonize those who experienced a negative impact, and respond to solution-oriented feedback with resistance and blame have a bigger problem. Anyone can have a shame-and-blame reaction if they’re blindsided by feedback or under tremendous stress. But if shame-and-blame is their pattern over time or general attitude, the question becomes: Is this person a good fit for their role, or for your organization?

Rehabilitating sociopaths is not your job. Getting meaningful results that matter and supporting your effective team members to create more excellence should be your goal.

Susana Rinderle is president of Susana Rinderle Consulting and a trainer, coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email

Susana Rinderle is a principal consultant with Korn Ferry, and a coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email

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