What is “Sensitivity Training?”

The term and concept of “sensitivity training” emerged in the mid-20th century as a response to societal shifts and the growing awareness of social issues such as discrimination, prejudice, and inequality. Its direct roots can be traced back to Kurt Lewin, a German-born psychologist (later working for Cornell University and MIT) who developed the concept of group dynamics and pioneered the use of experiential learning methods in the 1940s.

During the post-World War II era, sensitivity training gained traction as organizations sought ways to address interpersonal conflicts and improve communication within diverse workforces. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States also played a significant role, highlighting the need for greater sensitivity and understanding across racial and cultural lines.

Another key figure in popularizing sensitivity training was psychologist Carl Rogers, who advocated for a humanistic approach to psychology focused on empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. Rogers, along with other psychologists and educators, developed techniques such as role-playing, feedback sessions, and group discussions to promote self-awareness and empathy.

In the 1950s and 1960s, sensitivity training became widely adopted in various settings, including corporations, educational institutions, and community groups. It was often used to educate on and address issues of racial prejudice, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.

However, sensitivity training also faced criticism. With many prejudices and biases being deeply rooted (as they still are today), some characterized it as being manipulative, divisive, or ineffective. Critics argued that it could be used to enforce conformity or coerce individuals into accepting beliefs or values different from their own. Some naysayers even referred to it as “corporate charm school” for those who used offensive language, discriminated, or generally wouldn’t play nice with their coworkers who didn’t look like them.

How is Sensitivity Training 2.0 Different?

Despite these criticisms, sensitivity training survived (albeit under different labels). In fact, it continues to be one of the most requested types of training we deliver (check out our Connecting with Respect program if you’re curious). The good news is that today’s version of sensitivity training is vastly improved from its predecessor programs, incorporating insights and tools from fields such as sociology, anthropology, organizational psychology, and even neuroscience.

In recent decades, it has sometimes been integrated into broader diversity and inclusion initiatives. Used in these situations, the aim has not only been to raise awareness of differences (and uncovering common ground), but also to facilitate dialogue and foster the behaviors leading to greater respect, consideration, and empathy for differences among individuals and groups. In fact, contemporary sensitivity training has become a crucial tool for confronting harmful stereotypes and promoting curiosity, honest communication, and mutual respect between co-workers, regardless of their backgrounds. But contemporary sensitivity training isn’t just focused on the pursuit of civil rights and improving inter-group communications. The focus today is on building a cultural foundation of respect and psychological safety where members feel confident presenting their authentic selves and sharing their unique experiences, perspectives, and suggestions.

The good news is that the framework for this vision of sensitivity training is already embedded into a high percentage of corporate and public sector mission/vision/value statements. Companies like Microsoft, Dupont, IBM, Google, Accenture, Coca-Cola, and thousands more already articulate the importance of respect, dignity, empathy, trust, fairness, and kindness in the interactions between co-workers, vendors, clients, and other stakeholders. All these current values are the direct descendants of last century’s sensitivity training and serve as a reminder that how we treat each other at work matters profoundly. The challenge is that, like plants in a garden, these cultural elements cannot prosper without care. They need to be nurtured, protected, and invested in to really make a difference.

Why Sensitivity Training May Be Worth Taking a Closer Look at For Your Organization

Whether or not it is connected to an organization’s broader diversity and inclusion efforts, today’s version of sensitivity training makes sense to [re]consider for several reasons.

1. Sensitivity training can greatly improve overall business performance.

While training of all types has been statistically linked to improved operational performance (including profitability), training that specifically focuses on organizational culture directly impacts how leaders, managers and individual contributors interact with and treat each other. When we improve the quality of our interactions, work gets done more quickly, more efficiently, and with fewer mistakes.

2. It can lead to fewer harassment and discrimination claims.

As the owner of a training company, I always ask prospective new clients what prompted them to reach out to us. While some are seeking proactive support to help build healthy workplace cultures, approximately 70% of our new inquiries are looking for a “fix” to address poor behavior that led to formal HR complaints. When engaging these clients, we always recommend a systemic approach that works not only with the offender, but the entire team (although not at the same time). This approach both addresses the immediate need for corrective action, but also helps protect the organization in the future by creating a shared understanding of how team members agree to treat each other going forward.

3. Sensitivity training helps improve employee retention and engagement.

While there are many survey tools available to measure employee engagement, they all incorporate questions that try to answer a fundamental question: How committed are our employees to helping our organization be successful? Two of the major drivers to this question are a sense of connection (I have meaningful, healthy relationships at work) and feeling valued (my contributions are important). This is where sensitivity training can make a huge difference. By encouraging behaviors that organically lead to more workplace friendships and feelings of relevance, we encourage our employees to both give their best effort today…and stay to do it again tomorrow!

4. Sensitivity training facilitates greater creativity and innovation.

Whether it’s the integration of AI or new manufacturing technologies, or responding to evolving market trends, navigating change has been and will continue to be a constant for most organizations. By creating an environment where your employees feel valued, safe, and encouraged to share their ideas and perspectives, sensitivity training can increase the likelihood that more of your team members will proactively participate in creating your best possible future. Saying, “We value your input,” is one thing. Investing in and reinforcing the behaviors (especially from our leaders) that make this likely requires a bit more work.

5. You can’t start a DE&I initiative without it.

While some companies and public employers are pausing or reconsidering their commitments to diversity and inclusion efforts due to current political winds, most are not. I see evidence of this every day with our current clients’ training needs and communications. If this sounds like your organization, consider this: While diversity is a matter of demographics, the pursuit of inclusion is a where the cultural heavy lifting is done and what helps an organization refine and take advantage of its diversity. The journey toward inclusive workplaces is a long-term effort that considers many variables (hiring, promoting, coaching, access, history, biases, etc.) that impact how included and relevant different groups within your organization feel. But, and this is important, inclusion efforts cannot be successful unless they are built on a sturdy foundation of respect, civility, kindness, and compassion in our one-on-one interactions. This is where sensitivity training can help. It’s the cement that helps build a solid cultural foundation to build inclusion upon.

Oldies but Goldies

There is a lot to be said for keeping an open mind to new ideas and approaches for improving this endeavor we call work. But sometimes it’s also helpful to look in the rearview mirror and see if the lessons from yesterday deserve a second look. When updated and revamped to address our current social environment and challenges, the best “new thing” might just be something from the past. That’s why my team and I are keeping Sensitivity Training on our playlist!