The Golden Rule of DEI Change: Expect resistance - but don’t let it discourage you

Change is inevitable. Change can also be frustrating, and it’s not something that everyone gets on board with right away. When considering your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) transformation efforts, you are going to get resistance. Let’s take a look at what you can expect in this process, and how you can effectively address and mitigate that resistance.

Consider Pritchett’s 205030 rule:

Pritchett's 20-50-30 Rules

Emotions drive behavior. Given this, the first opportunity to inspire employees and evoke a sense of excitement that DEI change is both desirable and necessary is the early compelling change message from your senior leadership. This message will engage the 20% and provide, at the very least, impetus for much of the 50% to want to hear more. For the other 30%, this initial message will fall somewhere on the continuum of getting their hackles up, to falling on deaf ears. 

Every organization is different, and therefore you need to be able to tap into a variety of strategies to successfully mitigate resistance.

Resistors tend to cause the most problems and tend to make the most noise. They will try to poison the middle 50% if given a platform. Some change research suggests that a good overall strategy is to spend 100% of your time with the 70% who are change friendly, and those looking for a reason to adopt DEI change. 

During the early phase of communicating about DEI change, when you are interested in generating excitement and energy — especially for those dissatisfied with the status quo — this strategy makes a lot of sense. The problem with adopting this attitude and strategy carte-blanche as the DEI change process rolls out is three-fold: First, it labels all those in the 30% at the same level of resistance. Second, it doesn’t account for the pull that some people in this group have in terms of the power they hold related to positional authority and/​or tenure in the organization. And, finally, as your DEI transformation process unfolds, this positioning doesn’t account for a greater number of people in the initial middle 50% who become more engaged in being DEI change champions and, therefore, can be leveraged to pull” some of that 30% forward.

So, what to do with this resistant 30% over the course of your DEI change efforts? Consider what happens when we alter the conversation and consider resistance on a spectrum of hesitancy to full refusal.

Hesitancy is a failure to act because of uncertainty. Rejection shows up as full refusal. Consider these 2 questions throughout a DEI transformation process when hesitancy and rejection of ideas and actions are manifesting themselves:

  • What strategies offer the best probability of resolving each of these states?
  • Which roles in your organization can be the most effective in addressing the degree of resistance being demonstrated?

Three Strategies to Mitigate Resistance

Strategy #1: Get leaders on board

Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency in initiating an organization-wide change process such as DEI transformation is a grave error. Just getting the process of change started requires the aggressive cooperation of many people. Without motivation, people won’t engage or help, and the initial efforts will quickly stagnate. This is why it is critical to have leaders on board with DEI change; essentially walking the talk. And resistance to DEI change is arguably the most important reason that, initially, at least 75% of your people leaders — managers and supervisors — must be in your 20%. 

Strategy #2: Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Employees want to hear messages that will have an organization-wide impact from the C‑suite. They additionally want to hear those messages from their immediate supervisors, who will speak more to how DEI change will impact the employee’s role and responsibilities and be able to address the what’s in it for me.” DEI change messaging cannot be a one-and-done. Communication that is clear, consistent, and done in a variety of ways with a regular cadence is the balance to strike.

Strategy #3: Be curious and listen deeply

In the early stages of DEI change, compared to senior leaders, people leaders (managers and supervisors) are in a much more ideal position to see, hear about and feel resistance to DEI change. They can — and should — re-craft a DEI change message to match the culture of their team overall without changing its essence or its urgency. Soliciting feedback, actively listening, taking note of and respecting people’s questions and concerns, and using both one-on-one and team meeting time to keep the DEI conversation going are just a few of the ways that a manager can keep tapped into’ what employees are thinking about.

During a long and complex change like DEI transformation, it can be easier just to say, Well, there are anchors, and there are sails. And these people (resistors) are just going to be anchors.” Uncovering and solving for resistance is like holding a mirror up to your process of DEI change — and being willing to see the gaps reflected there for what they are. Resistance can help you determine where to focus and/​or pivot, if necessary, in the plan and pace of DEI change for your particular organization.

MESH’s formula for Inclusive Organizational Change underscores the need to pay as much attention to resistance as we do to communication, throughout a DEI change journey. Connect with us on how MESH can support your organization through this process