To make real progress, we should be shifting D&I narratives
I was inspired to write this piece after reading about an award given to a leader who “tirelessly fought for equity” on top of her full-time job. I deeply understand and appreciate the worthiness of honoring her work. Early in my career, I was that employee―passionate, giving, and selfless, as I went above and beyond my job description to advocate for diversity and inclusion. But we rarely address how emotionally exhausting and draining this can be on an individual.
To help counter this exhaustion, I want you to consider how we talk about people who do D&I work. There’s a misconception that D&I professionals are indefatigable advocates for good. This perpetuates a narrative that D&I work is an exercise similar to charity―something one does for free, out of the goodness of one’s heart. And the moral narrative doesn’t stop there.
This “good” and “bad” narrative is reflected in how we perceive leaders as they engage in conversations about diversity and inclusion. If a leader says the “wrong” thing, they are ill-informed and bad. If a leader says the “right” thing, they are compassionate and good. This binary “angel or devil” framework presents a difficult challenge for leaders. If I were a leader in this situation, I would feel guarded and reactive―a mindset that makes it more difficult to engage in meaningful change.
The good/bad narrative also shows up like this: after I explain the strategic benefits of D&I to an executive team, there will be a thoughtful pause. And then a leader will speak up and say: “Most importantly, D&I is the right thing to do.” I understand this verbal posturing because we all have positive intent. But ask any failed startup founder: positive intent to run a business never made it succeed. Commitment, strategy, and action are the key elements of success. Diversity, inclusion, equity, and equality have always been the right thing to do―AND also the smart thing to do for growing businesses.
Consider what happens when we shift this narrative to one of learning and growth. Our world is changing and evolving. To stay competitive, our businesses need to change and evolve as well. The human experience is full of mistakes. Learning and growth are uncomfortable. The reason D&I is one of the hardest professions is that it’s both strategic and emotional at the same time. Shifting mindsets is one of the most difficult tasks because it is based on emotional work. To create meaningful change, leaders have to undergo their own personal transformation. True transformation is messy, difficult work, and the payoff is not immediate.
My favorite consulting experiences happen when executive teams are humble enough to experience personal transformation. In a recent keynote, I spoke about how the leaders who transform:
- Reflect on their beliefs on inclusion
- Understand how their leadership style limits or expands inclusion
- Access the great ideas of their team members
- Expand their personal trust networks
- Nurture different leaders and leadership styles
- Increase team performance and business outcomes
The most effective leaders are those who see where our world is headed and can lead their company into a global economy. The fact is that people of color are the global majority and women are half of the global population. If D&I is the “right” thing to do, it’s because strategic leaders are always thinking about success in a larger context beyond just the ROI of their company. Company owners should absolutely expect that the leaders they hire to run their departments and business have the skills and competencies to lead diverse, high-performing teams.
Notice how shifting the narrative through this strategic lens now brings your D&I work into a sharper focus. In the older paradigm of D&I being a “good cause,” many top leaders in a company might consider D&I as “optional” or “nice to have.” By shifting D&I as core to the business, leaders now have a business imperative to build their own skills and capacity as a smart choice for strategic growth. These skills enable everyone to thrive and do their best, most innovative work. Notice how the efforts of a few tireless advocates in the organization are spread across the whole organization―energizing everyone to contribute to an inclusive and innovative culture.
Like all effective business practices, D&I is an investment and requires a solid strategy — starting with the board and senior leadership team. Top leaders are critical to any strategy that impacts revenue, marketing, product, and customer/employee experience. And while D&I professionals shouldn’t be expected to take on the role of social justice warrior, an effective D&I strategy aligns social justice to a company’s core business competencies and conviction.