It is no secret that 2020 put a glaring spotlight on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our everyday lives. As our communities reckoned with difficult questions and conversations around racial equity and justice, those topics found their way into our workplaces. Many companies took a proactive approach — hosting listening and learning sessions, conducting assessments, and building DEI action plans. But, even amid the initial positive momentum forward, organizations are still hitting roadblocks — leaving leaders frustrated.
While there are several reasons that organizations may face challenges when implementing DEI action plans, including a lack of change management strategy, or not enough strategic support, a significant hidden factor could be the disappearance of voices at the table. DEI work aims to add people and their viewpoints to the conversation; however, we are experiencing a trend where some individuals are shutting down.
Why Do People Silently Leave the Table?
First, the fear of the unknown. When there are talks of changes in policy, or implementation of new practices, people instinctively jump to, “What does this mean for me?” We see this in all varieties of business initiatives and transformations from implementing new software systems to changing an organizational structure. Change is hard, and people resist it out of fear of losing control, excess uncertainty, and potential threats to the status quo.
Now, cross the fear of the unknown with topics that can be challenging to discuss, and voila — a super barrier. This psychological super barrier leads to individuals feeling uncomfortable or threatened, resulting in them stepping back as an act of self-protection. One goal of DEI work is to increase visibility and equality for marginalized individuals. However, that sometimes comes at a hidden cost of making non-marginalized individuals (depending on the context) feel less seen, valued, or even attacked — leading to retreat.
Harvard Business Review examined the sentiments of white men in particular around the topic of DEI and found that 70% of them noted the single biggest challenge they had with engaging with the work is not knowing whether they are “wanted.” They expressed, “It seems like I’m not wanted in the room when D&I conversations start happening,” and “It feels like I’m part of the problem.” And, in a rare admission of a common sentiment, “It seems like everyone is out to get the white guys.”
Finally, there is a misconception of what diversity means. When I host DEI strategy workshops, I start with a simple ask: “Raise your hand if you consider yourself diverse.” Inevitably, in a room full of people, only a few hands will gingerly rise, primarily from those that identify as non-white or members of the LGBTQ+ community and a few women. I gently smile and follow with, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. Are you an exact carbon copy of the person next to you? Do you have the same background, beliefs, traditions, sexual orientation, ideology, physical ability, personal habits, or educational background as them? If not, then you, dear friend, are diverse, and you belong in this conversation.”
So, How Do We Call People Back to the Table?
1. Reintroduce the meaning of diversity — diversity is everyone. Have active conversations within your organization about what diversity means and how it affects the company. Doug Melville, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Richemont, was asked in HBR’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 101 podcast, “How do you allow these conversations to take place at work?” Doug says, “Diversity is like an operating system. Everyone’s brain is their hard drive, but we have a new patch update, and in this case, it’s the language of diversity. Increasing the diversity IQ of leadership, and all of the people in the company, will get people comfortable speaking and communicating about it.”
2. Allow for failure and messiness with the new language of diversity. Promote the idea that the goal is to teach, not criticize. Mistakes will happen, people may say the wrong thing, but this is how we learn and evolve. Allowing room for growth will help ease the fear.
3. Intentionally create spaces to have conversations about diversity and actively invite those whose voices may be missing because they feel unwanted, threatened, or devalued. Talk about the challenges and benefits of the DEI journey, and in those same spaces, talk thru the solutions. My insight as a woman of color in the workplace is valuable, but the insights of my white male counterparts are also valuable and vital because combining both is how we collaboratively solve for equality and fairness overall.
4. Apply change management practices to DEI work. DEI will not work if you only include a subset of individuals — it needs the same level of collaboration and partnership as any other strategic initiative. It is never too late to gather feedback from your employees to understand how they see themselves fitting into the DEI work. Excellent change management involves bringing everyone along with you, and often, that means meeting people where they are to understand their concerns, building a plan together, and creating belongingness.
One of my favorite sayings is “we all eat,” and Urban Dictionary defines it as, “The act of taking care of each other and promoting the general best in your group and/or family” — and it works perfectly for DEI. Updates to policies and practices that promote equity and inclusion can sometimes be seen as a zero-sum game — someone has to lose for others to win. But the reality is, when we prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion, everyone wins. The DEI journey is there so that “we all eat,” so come back to the table and invite others that may have silently stepped away; there is more than enough for everyone.