Breaking Down Barriers: Strategies for Making DEI Change Easier

We are at a point where it’s impossible to deny the need for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs in organizations. Despite this urgency, we’re still seeing a lot of faulty, outdated and even detrimental practices in use which often lead to frustration with the whole process. 

Even though there are definitely going to be roadblocks on the way to running effective, systemic, scalable and sustainable DEI change programs, that shouldn’t stop anyone from pursuing their goals.

To help us unpack all this, we recently spoke with Karen Bennett, the Organizational Development expert here at MESH/​diversity, to pick apart some of the common roadblocks and frustrations people can face in their DEI change journey. Maybe you’ve already encountered some of them, or maybe you’re new to DEI and want a heads-up — either way, let’s dive into Karen’s insights and help you and your organization stay on track.

Before we look at some specific roadblocks people face once they’ve begun their DEI journey, what is something that you find stops people from even starting it?

If you ask 5 different people to define DEI — diversity, equity, inclusion — you will very likely hear responses for each that sound similar but have subtle differences. This result is magnified when you include another concept — belonging — into the mix. When we can’t define DEI or come to agreement about what these concepts mean, it’s a huge roadblock right out of the gate to initiating DEI change within an organization. 

If there is an agreement or common understanding with any of these terms, it’s typically related to diversity. But, still, diversity is most often considered in a uni-dimensional way — race. This is not inclusive of the many ways that social oppression shows up (most notably, in terms of race, ethnicity, class, gender, gender identity, religion, ability, and age). Many times, DEI efforts begin with tackling low hanging fruit” with a goal such as increasing diversity in leadership positions” becoming an all-too-common strategy, resulting in lunch n learns, and the celebration and observance of various holidays and cultural events.

When the concepts themselves seem abstract, it becomes difficult to prioritize what you want to happen to enact DEI change. 

We often encounter tick-box approaches to DEI. Why do you think we are still seeing them when it’s become increasingly clear they don’t work?

It might be that your senior management has expressed a strong commitment to DEI change. This may have even resulted in hiring a Diversity and Inclusion practitioner or Director of People and Culture who has DEI as part of their work portfolio.

All too often, well-meaning and competent people in these roles feel the pressure of doing something quickly to demonstrate DEI change. When too many messages or rumblings about needed DEI change centre around hiring quotas or doing training or creating an ERG (Employee Resource Group), the results are one-off efforts that merely tick DEI boxes. This is exacerbated by messages that are rooted in social justice dialogue that does little to create environments where people feel safe and included — for example, not using certain words in conversation or written communication.

What is critical, and missing in such efforts, is a lack of understanding about what the problem really is that we’re trying to solve with DEI change. That, and having a cogent change strategy in place to create DEI change that is systemic, sustainable and scalable. While people will look for short-term wins or changes — which are encouraged to grow and maintain excitement and commitment — DEI change is a long-term process for systemic DEI change to occur.

I imagine some of the bigger roadblocks can come from the leadership level. What are some ways leadership impacts the journey?

Creating meaningful DEI change in organizations BEGINS with leaders! There can be no disagreement with this statement. True urgent leadership around DEI change doesn’t drain people; it does the opposite. It energizes people and makes them feel excited for what’s to come. Senior leaders need to think about DEI change as both service TO and FOR the organization’s employees, clients and other stakeholders. This requires having both empathy and providing direction.

If a leader’s direction is merely to tell others to get it done” it’s too easy to fall into the trap of tick-box changes. Leaders must educate themselves and be supported in their capacity to be the best they can be for all their staff so that everyone can thrive in their work culture, not just minoritized folks. 

And, when we think of leadership, we also cannot underestimate the importance of middle managers and supervisory leaders. A full 75% of change efforts — especially in the case of transformational organizational change such as DEI — will fail without a commitment to change at this level of the organization. (John Kotter, Leading Change’) Employees look to leaders to walk the talk so while messaging is critical, it cannot be undermined by everyday actions and interactions. 

In recent years, we have seen corporations make public announcements in support of movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, which looks good on the surface, but doesn’t always translate to sustainable DEI change. Could this not lead to sentiments of cynicism that impedes DEI progress?

Public pronouncements in the context of these movements, and other events where people who are vulnerable, minoritized or marginalized are attacked both literally and figuratively, have been both a boon to and a bane of DEI change initiatives. They have highlighted the gross inequities that exist in our world and, more often than not, prompted both conversation and action within our workplaces which, essentially, operate as microcosms of our society. Without cementing real boots-on-the-ground change into a fulsome DEI change strategy it is all too easy to see pronouncements from leadership as a ploy to appeal to clients and stakeholders. 

For minoritized employees especially, it can easily be felt as hope denied — having something dangled in your face that is just for show. How can cynicism about real DEI change happening not grow in this environment? If you couple this with working in an organization with a dismal or lackluster track record with other change efforts, moving the DEI change needle will result in pro forma change at best.

Another thing that may relate to this potential sense of cynicism is that the priority around DEI doesn’t seem clear. Why is it important for DEI to be more of a must-have than, say, a nice-to-have?

Many companies, if they prioritize DEI change at all, put this on their organizational agenda only after most of their important business problems are addressed. We don’t have the time for this work” is a common mantra. Unfortunately, even with minimal commitment to DEI change, this way of thinking means DEI change will never have the opportunity to take root, thrive and grow in a systemic way. 

Because it’s seen as an addition to the work, not part of the work — not part of the fabric of organizational life. Until leaders understand that all employees can thrive in a culture that feels safe and inclusive they can’t see that DEI change actually fuels the bottom line! This is why tick-box strategies that include one-off events and initiatives cannot be the bread and butter of DEI change — they risk only producing more work” that isn’t connected to the day-to-day work culture. 

You’ve touched on how leadership can potentially be a roadblock, but how can leadership actually aid in mitigating some of the frustrations with DEI change?

The most important contribution leaders can make to DEI change within their organizations is to walk the talk. Actions speaking louder than words is not just something we learned as children! Pronouncements, updates and other forms of communication should be seen as touchstones from the leadership level — introducing DEI to the organization and giving program updates regularly. What is critical though is that everyday actions and interactions of leaders, with all employees, must reflect the culture that good DEI work will create — a sense of safety, belonging and inclusion. 

The additional benefit to walking the talk in an authentic manner is that DEI change is seen as another priority of the organization’s work, and not a portfolio sitting on the side of someone’s desk that they get to when they have time. Over time, what will happen when leaders at all levels walk the talk is that you are continuously building DEI change champions who have the interest and passion to keep driving positive change in the culture of your workplace.

Would you say that communication has to play a pivotal role in working through any frustrations?

If actions speak louder than words — and they do — it is fundamentally important to get the words right too! The golden rule in change communications is that leaders are the preferred sender of organizational messages; managers and supervisors are preferred sender of personal impact messages. 

Initial communication messages from leadership around DEI change must be clear, direct, informative and convincing. Communication that is also authentic, empathetic and honest is also critical; and especially so when/​if there is any history of poor or failed change efforts in the organization demonstrating how this will be different and why. Initially, it’s paramount to address 3 things in a message from senior leadership:

  • What’s the nature of the change?
  • Why is it happening? And, why now?
  • How does DEI change align with and support the organization’s mission and values?

People manager leaders play an essential role in enabling successful change. Walking the talk is also critical at this level; managers and supervisors have the greatest day-to-day interaction with employees. People manager level messages should reinforce information from the senior leadership message including:

  • Why are we doing this? And, why now?
  • How does it impact our team?

Additionally, people managers need to consider, and be prepared to respond to, the questions most asked by employees about organization-wide change especially, as is the case with DEI. Here are a few of the more common ones:

  • What’s the risk of not changing?
  • What will the change mean to me, personally and in my role?
  • What are the benefits of supporting the change?

You do yourself a favour in adopting 2 mantras in communicating about DEI change:

1. The right message, from the right person, via the right channel, to the right audience
2. If you sound like a broken record, you’re doing it right!

Data and metrics are used for so many other functions of a business. Could metrics also be leveraged when it comes to DEI change?

Management theorist Peter Drucker is recognized as coining this phrase: What gets measured, gets improved.” The trick is to understand the value of data, measure the right things and then make sense of it all to inform decisions and direction around your DEI change. 

Most often DEI measurement begins and ends with diversity data”. Earnest and well-meaning organizational, HR and DEI leaders frequently jump to counting heads as a first step when they realize there’s a lack of minoritized talent in their organization — often focusing on the leadership level. Surface level efforts like these help to unearth inequity but do little to address the systems issues at play that create such scenarios. If the organizational culture doesn’t support people feeling safe, included and having a real sense of belonging, changes such as hiring more minoritized people will result in little systemic DEI change. 

We know at MESH that we CAN measure safety, belonging and inclusion — all of which underpin systemic, sustainable and scalable DEI change. The results of these metrics can drive the creation of a DEI vision for the organization and inform the development of a comprehensive strategy — replete with goals, objectives and KPIs — to make that vision a reality. We must dramatically re-envision the environments — workplace culture — in which people are expected not only to perform, but excel.

Do you have any final insights on what these roadblocks and frustrations potentially lead to during the DEI change process?

Think of being on a road trip and, after already having to change a flat tire, you’ve come to a sign indicating a road closure ahead due to bridge reconstruction. This will necessitate a fairly lengthy detour on a route you are unfamiliar with. Unless you are a person who finds adventure in all things, the vast majority of us will feel some level of frustration or anxiety that we will now need to go out of our way, take more time to do so, and have to navigate in an unknown area; all of this after already dealing with a flat tire. 

Organizational DEI change can feel a lot like this; some level of excitement and energy in beginning the journey and then various roadblocks arise. Some we can mitigate in various ways — like the flat tire — and others can feel like a true barrier such as the bridge. Any roadblock can lead to frustration and, in terms of organizational DEI change, this will often manifest as resistance to the changes being proposed or occurring already, to various degrees and in a variety of forms. What we need to accept is that resistance is a naturally occurring part of any change process and no less so with organizational DEI change. 

One of the best ways to deal with roadblocks, hurdles and frustrations with DEI change is to share them with others. This allows us to gather new insights and ideas to help us address the issues and problems we’re facing or will face in the future. MESH/diversity’s programming has been created for this purpose — working together as a community of learners with material that marries the science of DEI with solid change practice principles, processes and tools to avoid or ease the roadblocks so common to DEI change happening in organizations.

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