Diversity in the Age of Disruption

 Part I: How did we get here?

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB) isn’t new from a talent strategy perspective. Organizations have had teams, metrics, and training in place for years. Elevating diverse perspectives has been slow, but steady, progress. But with the disruption of a global pandemic and cries for social justice throwing inequities into stark relief, it feels like we’ve brought a thimble of water to a raging wildfire. The task seems enormous and daunting. But it’s not that we have the wrong destination, it’s that we’re working off an old map.

Old Tapes

DEIB traditionally focused primarily on visibility and equity metrics—getting the right people in the organization, treating them fairly and fostering their growth. The idea behind this is sound—the more exposure to diverse perspectives, the healthier and more responsive to change the organization is. These policies and practices could largely be handled through leadership strategy and HR implementation. Diversity training and mentoring encouraged inclusion but was largely focused on affinity groups and “people finding their people.” It had more to do with the parallelism of tolerance and acceptance by a culture than adapting the culture itself, and many failed to engage the very populations they were built to serve as a result.

New Challenges

Belonging then became the goal—the connection of individual value to organizational purpose and the sense that individuals could show up at work as their “authentic selves.” It became less about how the organization fostered careers and more about an environment that was conducive to doing so. But how do you define, create, and measure a sense of belonging?

Enter 2020…

Diversity 2.0

Disruption creates uncertainty from which there are 2 possibilities: retrench or reform. Organizations are struggling with their responses to what may be well-intentioned diversity initiatives feeling woefully inadequate and yet simultaneously characterized as overreach.

The distinction is not that the overall mission has changed, but it has almost singularly focused on shepherding the targeted groups of interest, wholly ignoring the landscape in which that happens. Belonging requires belong-ees and belong-ers. We’ve ignored the long, hard, messy, stuttering work of change management: stakeholder engagement, building the business case, defining “what’s in it for me” for those whose behaviors need to change, and the iterative process of back and forth in bringing everyone along.

What’s different is laying the groundwork before building the house. Here the groundwork deals with very sensitive, deep-seated belief systems, asking people to revisit who they are at a fundamental level. A change of this magnitude and with this level of care is a multi-year, multi-phase process. That’s not to say that immediate actions cannot be taken and immediate progress made. The danger of retrenching instead of starting small and intentionally is exposure to constant disruption and the risk of irrelevance. Immediate steps: signal intent with leadership communications, commit resources, and hunker down for a multi-stage, long-term change journey.

Stay tuned for Part II: Where do we go from here?

Barbara Milhizer