The turbulence of these past few years has fundamentally altered the landscape of our lives and workplaces...and the disruption continues to build. Violent injustice, economic fears, rampant burnout, controversial legislation, and polarizing politics are wearing us down. Good people everywhere are weary of divisiveness and social tension. Forward-thinking leaders are raising big questions about how their companies should use their influence to stand up for what's right. Innovative businesses are shifting strategic gears to stay relevant as the next generation grows more and more diverse. And employers everywhere are scrambling to find - and keep - top talent.
In the midst of all this uncertainty, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offers us a way forward. DEI aims to engage, energize, and empower EVERYONE to thrive as they work toward a shared vision of a better future. This work is about building human connections, removing unintentional barriers, and positioning all of us to be at our best.
Getting DEI right is more important, and more complicated, than ever. If your organization is still approaching DEI as a collection of “food, flags, and fun”, it’s time to evolve and elevate your framework. Like any other strategic initiative, effective DEI requires a steady series of system-wide interventions. Need to level up your strategy? Use these five essential elements.
1 - Clarify outcomes. Ask yourself: “What is it we are actually trying to achieve?” You must define goals if you want to make meaningful progress. Start internally. Identify priorities by digging into data that illuminates the current state. Host listening sessions, assess your company culture, examine engagement reports, and look for disparities between identity groups. Uncover talent mobility gaps that show up as differences in hiring, promotion, or attrition rates across race, gender, and other dimensions of diversity.
These things will be uncomfortable to face, but we must surface this data. Every organization has problems, and we need to understand exactly what the problems are if we want to start fixing them. Find your baseline and get clear about your goals. Then you can measure progress moving forward to understand if what you're doing is working.
2 – Build consistent standards. We can’t rely on good intentions alone to overcome bias, and one training session won’t fix flaws in the system. Neuroscience tells us that we’ve ALL been conditioned to judge others unintentionally, and the nature of unconscious bias is that we don't know we have it.
The antidote? Designing consistent standards that make things better and fairer for everyone. Doing diversity, equity and inclusion work is not about taking from one group and giving to another. It’s about structuring an environment where everyone has a fair chance.
We do DEI because we believe in the full potential of every single human to achieve amazing things. The goal is for all of us to enjoy equal rights, opportunities, and positive experiences, regardless of the circumstances we were born into. We must work together to create systems that afford all of us the same opportunity to prove ourselves.
Everyone interviewing for a certain job should be able to showcase their talent by answering the same set of questions. Everyone who aspires to advance within an organization should have a defined growth and development plan. Everyone who works on a team should receive coaching and feedback from their leader. Our talent processes typically have undefined components that allow bias to creep in, which creates unintentional and unfair barriers. Auditing these processes for objectivity allows us to identify and define more inclusive and equitable systems.
3 - Expect resistance. As humans, we are all reluctant to let go of our "norms". We find comfort in the familiar and we prefer to operate in environments that we understand. We are open to new things if we can see that they lead to a better future, but when we are asked to change too much too fast, we pull back.
The fact is, organizational change only happens when people change. They must understand why the change is important, how the change will affect them, and what they are being asked to do differently. Define their “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me) and articulate it clearly. Paint a compelling vision of the future and show them how to navigate there with new relevant terminology, tools, and processes. Change management is a science all of us can learn about and leverage. (For more on this, check out the ADKAR model from ProSci).
4 - Honor the human factor. DEI work is not about numbers, it’s about people. We can dispel false narratives about what it means by finding ways to spark personal connections. Highlight stories. Feature the impact on real people. Encourage everyone to reflect on times when they felt judged, left out, overlooked, or belittled. We all know what that feels like. We know we don’t want it for ourselves – so why would we allow it for others? (Jane Elliott said it best.)
DEI is rooted in difference, but it's also about a shared human experience we can all understand. We want to be respected, valued and rewarded for our unique strengths and capabilities. When we are, it moves us to be our best selves and do our best work.
5 - Define how DEI aligns. Because this work is so good for people in a deeply meaningful way, it is also good for business. Removing inequitable barriers and creating inclusion helps us all find more passion, more energy, more creativity, more courage to grow and learn, and more resilience to get through change. Aren't these talent attributes exactly what companies want?
Strategic, forward-thinking organizations understand that their investment in DEI gives them a way to boost all of these things:
Employee joy, meaning, engagement, and loyalty
A more authentic and appealing employment brand
Improved innovation and more well-informed decision-making
Culturally relevant communication in response to complex societal issues
The context to orient products and services toward an increasingly diverse marketplace
Internal trust, collaboration, and team performance
Defining how these DEI advantages align with your organization's values and business goals is what builds credibility and sustainability for your DEI work. Identify how DEI can truly help your business and build your strategy from there.
As you navigate the ever-changing dynamics facing your business, the health and strength of your organizational culture matters more than ever. Incorporating these five essential elements into your DEI strategy will help you build plans that are relevant, strong, and sustainable.
Know that we are cheering you on! If you need a DEI thought partner, change architect, or culture strategist, please reach out - we're here to help.