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Why D&I Efforts Formulated without Input from Underrepresented Groups will Fail

Dear Leaders: the only thing worse than taking no action to address your diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) culture is being performative.

What does being performative look like? Developing a DEIB council, initiative, or program without any input at all from the underrepresented individuals within your organization.

There have been a lot of well-intentioned efforts launched recently, especially since last summer and the renewed call for social justice. The heightened attention to long-standing issues, especially in the workplace, has been encouraging but in many instances I’ve seen and heard of, the means are not always fitting the challenge. It boils down to this: the people who are experiencing and being directly impacted by social injustice are often being left out of the discussion about the solution.

And how does that feel? Think of it like going to a doctor. If you’re having a medical problem and you go see someone who makes a diagnosis and comes up with a treatment without discussing the specifics of your symptoms and medical history with you, how much faith do you have in their plan? And how valued do you feel in the process? How much — or how little — power have you been given in influencing your own outcome?

This is what an uninformed DEIB mandate feels like to people within underrepresented groups in your organization.

So what may their reactions be when challenges they’re living are being “solved” without their input?

Reaction #1: Suspicion. What are your motivations? Who are you trying to convince? Customers? Board members? Shareholders?

Reaction #2: Distrust. Why should we believe you? If this wasn’t a priority for you and the organization last week/month/year, why now?

Reaction #3: Outrage. Why do you think you have answers to our challenges when you haven’t even asked us the questions?

The emotions behind these reactions didn’t materialize from out of nowhere. If you had been operating in an environment for years under an ever-present threat while the people who work beside you — some of whom even had the power to correct it — ignored it, you would be cautious, too.

So what can you do as leaders to indicate that you genuinely want to make changes that will honor the people who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized in your organization?

Tip #1: Find out what your staff thinks of your DEIB culture. Ask people what comes up for them in their day-to-day experience at your organization. And what do they see as the most pressing challenges to address? (Note: Do not default to a survey. Meaningful insights usually come from meaningful dialogue.)

Tip #2: Ask them what would indicate to them that you hear what they’re saying, that you’re are willing and committed to tackling this challenge with them, and that you’ll act based on their input. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. One of the main obstacles that could prevent your DEIB effort from taking off is fear (and rightfully so) on the part of the underrepresented — fear of retribution, fear of retaliation, fear of jeopardizing their careers and reputations. What signals are you sending them that it’s safe to start engaging about these topics? What indicators are you providing that they can trust you to truly receive what they’re sharing? What are you leading with to show that actual change is going to happen if they’re willing to give you their trust?

Tip #3: Ask them how they want to engage in this dialogue. Some of the most infuriating stories I hear are from members of underrepresented groups — especially leaders — who are not given a voice one day and are then pushed to the front of the room the next because some matter related to the race, gender, ability, etc. they identify with has suddenly become a “hot button issue” in their organization. Do not make assumptions about how people will want to engage, in what capacity, and to what extent. Some individuals may be comfortable having small group conversations among their peers, others may feel comfortable leading large voluntary group discussions, and others may want to serve in an advisory capacity as part of a dedicated committee, if at all. Engagement should be a matter of choice and refusal must always be an unpunishable option.

Tip #4: Do not limit your exploration to the top leadership in your organization. For one thing, most organizations have very limited representation at that level so you’re not likely to get many diverse perspectives. Another factor to consider is that the issues your staff experiences likely vary depending on their level and function within your organization. For example, supervisors may have a different experience than frontline staff. And your corporate support employees may face different challenges than those who are client-facing. To get as close as possible to uncovering the collective regard, or the “normal” experience, of your workforce, it’s necessary to engage a broad sampling of your staff.

These insights are not being shared to say that all your efforts are wrong. The question is, are they meaningful? And are they meaningful to the people who need to see the change the most? You may not have to scrap your programs but gaining insight from your staff can certainly help you course-correct if you haven’t done so yet.

DEIB is not a typical business problem to be solved; it’s all about people and changing hearts, minds, and behaviors. Human-centered challenges require human-centered approaches and that means engaging, discussing, and most importantly, listening. That’s where the success lies.