We witnessed George Floyd’s murder and other tragic events that sparked the need for long-overdue conversations about race and oppression — and many business leaders reacted by setting goals associated with DEI. Of course, there’s something profoundly satisfying about crossing items off a to-do list and feeling like you’re making tangible progress toward the desired outcome. But how does this work when our “desired outcome” is to dismantle deeply entrenched systems that have perpetuated inequitable and exclusive practices for years? Spoiler: A list of goals isn’t enough.
Our attempts at just moving away from the status quo haven’t worked as we hoped. After all, everything from hiring processes to our everyday systems of interaction can have negative impacts. The journey ahead requires rebuilding these systems to provide a workplace where people can contribute, thrive, and feel a sense of belonging. This is bigger than a monthly, quarterly, and even yearly goal. These ineffective systems won’t go away quickly, easily, or quietly — nor will a list of accomplished action items alone signal a meaningful change in employees’ behaviors and mindsets.
Part of the challenge is that the impact on cultures, processes, and people have become invisible to some yet unbearable for others. Those who thrive in a workplace often don’t realize how a system benefits them, while those who don’t benefit often suffer in silence or leave. The work to correct these impacts requires mutual adaptation and wrestling with our internal processes — and that’s not easily measured. It’s also deeply uncomfortable for many of us to grapple with the realities of existing systems of oppression and their very real impact on our workplaces.
Many of us are terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing, and this fear often leads to paralysis in which DEI-focused goals serve as security blankets shielding us from the reality of the difficult road ahead. Real transformation means shifting our focus from compliance to commitment, from ego to empathy, and from stage-managing to relationship-building. How do we reframe the way we think about progress as it relates to DEI and, in turn, activate true transformational change?
1. DEI IS MORE THAN A PASS/FAIL INITIATIVE
When you only track data to determine whether you’re on course to hit a diversity goal, you set yourself up for two potential outcomes: pass or fail. Failure can be paralyzing enough to halt your journey, and success can give you a false sense of “arriving” at an inclusive workplace.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t track data, because it does help you make necessary adjustments. Rather, it’s about reconsidering how you use that data. DEI data is a lens through which you foster ongoing conversations and stay committed to ensuring a safer, more equitable work environment. To do that, you need to create psychological safety so that people feel comfortable practicing new behaviors, stumbling along the way, and getting up and committing again.
During a recent event, we played a video that included curated diversity stories. In one vignette, a white man said to be wary of those who walk around saying that they’re “woke” instead of recognizing that we’re forever awakening. This statement reflects the growth mindset required to roll up our sleeves and continue to do the hard work, no matter how many boxes we check off.
2. CONFLICT IS PART OF THE PROCESS
A while back, we facilitated a 360 review for a client. The results showed that one leader had received glowing reviews across the board. The individual was quick to believe that this meant they were doing everything right. We dug a little deeper, however. Was the leader truly perfect, or did people feel unsafe speaking freely about that individual’s performance?
When you begin to prioritize DEI, it’s not uncommon to see an uptick in what we might call negative feedback. Concerns sometimes surface that have been felt but not spoken. Because we place a high value on people feeling bought in and engaged, this freedom of expression may feel like conflict. This can be challenging for organizations and individuals who want to see only high marks. It can also be deflating for those championing DEI efforts and hoping for positive change. Unfortunately, it can also be used as a justification for those who want to maintain the status quo.
Creating a psychologically safe space does not always mean it will feel comfortable. There is value to the organization when people speak their truth, as long as values like freedom are coupled with respect and accountability. Instead of viewing the feedback as evidence of dissatisfaction, consider treating it as a leading indicator of success and a strategy to disrupt unhealthy patterns of behavior.
3. ROI ISN’T THE ONLY END GOAL
If you’ve spent any time on the internet reading about DEI in the workplace, you’ve probably seen headlines about the ROI of a diverse employee base or the financial impact of this work.
Anticipating a return on any investment is smart and wise. At the same time, creating an equitable organization requires an investment of our time, energy, and resources. Until everyone is safe, included, and compensated equitably, the work is not done. This is the type of work that might not yield a tangible profit right away, and we’ll still need to develop new soft skills to start (think humility, patience, empathy, and compassion). Let’s face it: None of us wants to choose between ROI and knowing we’ve done the right thing.
Regardless, the irony is that organizations willing to prioritize DEI initiatives and stick with them are proving that this work does make financial sense in the long run. Just remember that profit isn’t the only benefit of doing this work.