Is Sensitivity Training Insensitive?

shutterstock_127436720Although it seems counterintuitive, organizations seeking to teach “cultural sensitivity” are being insensitive, according to Susana Rinderle, a consultant specializing in diversity and a blogger for Diversity Executive. Why? Rinderle suggests three reasons cultural sensitivity training doesn’t work.

  1. Teaching cultural sensitivity sets up a tacit “us” “them” situation and is patronizing.

Teaching cultural sensitivity can have negative implications because underlying the approach is the unspoken notion that white people need to be more sensitive to people of color. This reinforces a power imbalance. In other words, if “I” need to be more sensitive to “you” to fix a problem, then “you” need to be handled with kid gloves because “you” are fragile. That’s downright patronizing, Rinderle says. People of color don’t want extra compassion—they want an equal playing field and an inclusive culture.

  1. Cultural sensitivity training doesn’t build new skills.

 Participants in cultural sensitivity training sessions are usually provided with general information that frequently reinforces cultural or racial stereotypes. Then they return to the workplace charged with being “more sensitive.” Instead, they will likely walk on eggshells, which inhibits developing real relationships and effective communication. Unless workers are provided with specific behaviors illustrating how sensitive behavior looks and feels, the training participants have not learned about intercultural effectiveness, which entails communicating across human differences in whatever form they take.

  1. Cultural sensitivity training rarely contains clear goals that target the root problem.

Training programs that are set up without clear outcomes are doomed to fail, and most organizations that grasp at cultural sensitivity training as a way to fix an unnamed issue do just that. Training should be tied to organizational values. Unless training addresses a specific problem and has a clearly stated desired result, it is a waste of resources, Rinderle says.

The desire for cultural sensitivity stems from good intentions, but unless the training is approached the right way, it may just make things worse.

Discussion questions

  1. Why do you think any group—people of color, different religions, LBGTQ, the homeless—may not appreciate being the topics of cultural sensitivity training?
  1. How can we show sensitivity to those who are different from us?
  1. How might an “us” and “them” scenario lead to poor relationships?


What do you think about teaching cultural sensitivity? Post your response!

Source: Rinderle, S. (2014, Aug. 6). Why cultural sensitivity is ineffective and insensitive. Retrieved from


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