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Acting on Biases

Strategic Interactions Uses Customized Dramas to Teach Corporate America About Everything From Sexual Harassment to Teamwork


Gentle reader:

Diversity training, we have been told, is good for us. Like moderation, broccoli and brisk walks after dinner. But the cod-liver-oil approach to breaking down barriers in the workplace sometimes reinforces prejudices and makes co-workers like each other even less, as reporter Mary Curtius explains in the story here on finding a competent diversity trainer.

One difficulty with teaching sensitivity to our differences is that rudeness, like pornography, is sometimes hard to describe--but one knows it when one sees it. With that in mind, a traveling troupe of psychologists and consultants acts out some of the thorny at-work personal exchanges that fall open to conflicting interpretations. Some of those scenarios are described in this story so that you may test your judgment while no one is judging you.

Ms. Work Wise



Readers of the Careers section first met Ms. Work Wise last November when the etiquette-savvy fictional character created by our readers joined real-life columnist Judith Martin (a.k.a. "Miss Manners") to address problems related to rudeness in the workplace. Ms. Work Wise returns in this issue to introduce stories on different types of training and will continue to appear as a voice in careers.


First David Swink's company used psychodrama to teach law enforcement agents how to defuse hostage situations, talk jumpers off of bridges, deal with domestic violence.

Then he branched out, using the same tools to teach corporate America about everything from sexual harassment to team building. Diversity training, he says, is one of the company's primary focuses.

"These are tough social issues," says Swink, who is president of Strategic Interactions of Vienna, Va. "They may not be life and death, but they're important nonetheless."

Strategic Interactions takes a diverse team of professional psychodramatists and actors into a workplace, analyzes the company's needs and then customizes a series of short dramas to teach employees. Some are interactive, others are used as launching pads for discussion.

"We work the most now with the concept of subtle, unconscious bias," says Swink, whose clients have included companies such as the Discovery Channel and America Online, as well as a variety of government agencies. "We learned a lot about this through training federal judges.

"Judges are some of the people with the most egalitarian values," he said. "But most people are biased as human beings. We have to normalize that."

Strategic Interactions' niche is a small one, but other training companies use drama to teach diversity also, often by having employees role-play a variety of scenes. Some give the managers they are coaching ing a dilemma and have them work it through as the manager they are every day.

"That gives us the rich ground in terms of feedback about how they perform as a manger or leader," says Wendy Perrigo, who is in charge of business development for San Diego's Center for Creative Leadership.

Either way, here are some scenarios that can be used to fuel discussion about diversity in the workplace, which these days includes issues surrounding race, gender, age, mental illness, physical disability and others.

Act I, Scene I

Sandra sits in her office at a large public relations company in Southern California, elbows on the desk, chin propped in her hands, talking to her friend Jennifer, who's leaning against the door.

Sandra, an African American woman, is perplexed. Jennifer, an Asian woman, both colleague and friend, is trying to comfort and interpret.

Sandra: You know, I just cannot figure it out. I've worked at this company for three years, I've gotten raises and good job evaluations, and now this! The promotion I wanted goes to someone else. I just don't get it.

Jennifer: Who got the job instead?

Sandra: Ann Charles, over in events planning.

Jennifer: Well, she has been in this business a lot longer than you have, right? Maybe that's it. They thought she had more experience.

Sandra: I guess it's possible. But it's so discouraging. I mean, I've been working really hard to get a good relationship going with Jason and then he picks her for the job. I just don't think he's really comfortable with me, you know?

I mean, we were going over this project the other day and I came in a little over budget, and he didn't say anything. I was really surprised. I'd been so worried that he'd chew me out and then he didn't. But I didn't really feel relieved, because he kept looking like he was holding something back that he wanted to say. It was so strange.

Jennifer: That is odd. Did you ask him about it?

Sandra: Well, no. I mean, I didn't want him to dwell on it. It wasn't my finest moment.

Jennifer: Yeah, but maybe he could have helped you. Do you think he automatically would have held it against you? Why didn't you give him a chance?

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