A new light has been shining on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and initiatives in the wake of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, protests nationwide, and corporate commitments to “do better” or “make changes.” But ultimately, it’s important to consider why DEI initiatives haven’t stuck in the past so that we can make sure they do this time.
When companies kick off their initial discussions with me about the workshops I lead, they often mention wanting to understand their employees or colleagues better, develop new perspectives, and have real conversations about race, bias, prejudice, and more.
Yet inevitably they ask me for a list of metrics by which we judge our success, or a list of terms they should ensure they use or avoid. Which ultimately begs the question: Do they want a box to check off, or do they truly want to do the transformational work?
Often there are crucial pitfalls that prevent companies from making lasting change through DEI programs.
Too Much Focus on Data
Data is often the central focus when it comes to DEI. The effectiveness of a program is measured by data and terms, rather than by feelings and human experience. While data is important, measuring meaningful representation of diversity within companies should ultimately be in service of telling a broader story of the experience that people are having within an organization.
Using data and practicing proper terminology for race, gender, and sexual orientation are important, don’t get me wrong. But they serve mainly as technical solutions to adaptive challenges.
However, human beings by nature are adaptive (dynamic, multifaceted, layered), which means that we need to address our problems with adaptive solutions. Attempting to fix adaptive challenges with technical solutions typically does not solve problems. It’s like Band-Aids on issues that require a full-on body cast and lots of physical therapy. Such “solutions” merely produce the same dysfunction we are aiming to eradicate.
For example, do we fix homelessness by building more shelters, or does that only address the need for current and maybe future homeless people to have a place to sleep at night while they remain homeless? Do we solve drug abuse by putting people in jail, or does that potentially take individuals away from society without addressing their actual drug use? The list goes on with efforts that inevitably backfire.
Fear of Discomfort
DEI is personal and is deeply seated in the human condition. Recognizing that each person is bringing a lifetime of experiences, internal self-talk, cultural conditioning, and contradicting (even sometimes negative) correlations to the table is crucial to creating an environment where real change can happen.
People experience the world through their own feelings, perspectives, actions, communications. And creating a platform for them to share those with each other to gain new understanding and identify common ground is transformative. Although it can sound intangible, the most impactful way forward is to create an experience-based — as opposed to a metrics-based — program that leaves participants considering their own feelings and having a newfound knowledge of the experiences of those around them.
Sharing our personal stories and learning those of others around us allows for an increase in empathy, which in turn allows for learning and development. Notably, this can also be triggering or sensitive, which is not typically welcomed into a corporate culture.
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But it should be. Each individual comes into the DEI discussion at a different level and with a different perspective. It is critical that we recognize this and offer opportunities for each person, no matter where they lie on the spectrum, to meet in the middle and exercise new ways of listening, considering, and engaging that help them stretch and expand.
Misunderstanding That “We” Are the Goal
Ultimately, companies need to decide if they want to go through the transformational work and processes that will lead to developing a better understanding of self and those around us. The goal of DEI is to create a workplace where uncontrived and authentic culture shifts have created a place where the diverse people we want to hire actually want to work.
Again, this comes back to feeling. In the same way that oftentimes prospective college students choose their universities based on how they “feel” on campus or homeowners buy their homes based on how they “feel” while inside, job-seekers also feel out their potential employers. To not only hire but keep and foster the growth of people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, women, and other diverse groups, we need to create a feeling of acceptance, understanding, willingness to engage, and support.
This means that we still need the data, we still need the terms, we need the best practices. But we also need what is often missing — executive leadership that understands the need for humanity. We need their humanity and that of all those who work inside the organization.
You cannot try to fix the exclusionary and faulty hiring practices, policies, or company culture by hiring a chief diversity officer or changing the language in your job descriptions. Instead, executive leaders need to endorse this hands-on internal work as part of the work culture. And when things get tough or take too long, that is the time to engage more, lean in more, ask more questions. Instead, too often this is when the well-meaning efforts and investments put into DEI become a point of contention, dismal, and even regret.
So yes, we should continue to check off identity boxes and feel confident in knowing the difference between a pronoun and a sexual orientation. These things are important. And yes, we must continue to hire chief diversity officers. But if we want any of this work to pay off, we also need to ensure that this is an experiential journey, not one driven by metrics.