Please stop Columbusing DEIB.
You’ll need more than a wokeness honeymoon phase to make diversity, eq
I’ve been putting off this write-up for a while. If I’m honest, I’m worried about alienating people. It could even cost me. My expertise is constantly called into question by people who know very little about DEIB. No one says, “I think you’re full of crap!” The real pushback is emotional, from people who do all sorts of mental gymnastics to sustain that “I’m on the right side of history” feeling.
And it’s awkward because I’m a “mid career” woman with a decade and a half of this work under my belt, but I’m often in rooms with people 20 years older. When I started in 2003, DEIB was called multiculturalism. The terms and data have changed a lot. But the emotional and intellectual defense tactics that companies use to avoid doing the work has not.
Quick story before we get into it. And I promise not just a rant, but as always, data-backed suggestions for what to do.
In 2016, I was about to get on a plane for Panama. The occasion was research on race, ethnicity, and the social impact of a program concurrently operating in Panama and about 15 US cities. The white woman who ran the program--and who had instigated our then 18-month professional relationship--told me suddenly that she couldn't give me access to anyone or anything related to the program once I touched down at the airport. She wasn't “comfortable” with the very same work I’d shared with her for a year and a half. She feared that the topic--race, ethnicity, and the user experience of program participants--might make her program look bad.
This San Francisco-raised, wokeness-embracing, Harvard-educated person was not new to my work. But her fear wasn’t new either. It was my fault for believing her--believing that she wanted her program to improve more than she was scared to find out the impact of her design on the actual human beings experiencing it. She, like many business leaders, thought her impact would just naturally flow out of her vision statement. We all (me too!) want to feel like our good intentions manifest in the world. The trouble is, so few businesses actually want to assess and improve. They want to understand and control instead.
...Perhaps not getting sued. (Many of the new DEIB roles posted 2020/21 are actually HR policy compliance positions masquerading as People & Culture programs. This is compliance, folks, not DEIB.)
...Perhaps not getting bad press. (...ditto to 20/21 roles posted but for marketing, public relations, and communications. This is mar/comms, folks, not DEIB.)
...Perhaps not losing personnel due to dis-inclusivity. (This is great motivation, but it’s not DEIB just because you want to avoid losing money from employee attrition. “Keeping” your people isn’t necessarily DEIB.)
...But also control that feeling… Are we doing the right thing? I thought so… what if this assessment shows we’re off the mark? Then who are we as a business? And who am I as a leader?
Like the proverbial bartender, half my work is holding space for business’ anxiety, fear, and confusion. In my opinion, that’s required for DEIB.
So to finish the story.
This woman dis-invites me as I’m packing for Panama. I could paint her as a bit more of a villain in regards to the professional relationship she and I had had, but no need; she showed her true colors when she threw her right-hand woman under the bus, stating that her employee didn’t know what she was doing and had simply screwed everything up. So much for the spirit of international cooperation and harmony her business was built on (and her programs were marketed under).
The desire to control the narrative and be The Correct One is normal. To some degree, it’s more normal the more we care and try. But DEIB work is as much about hunger to see where we’re wrong, confused, hypocritical, and yes, sometimes harmful. DEIB work is about seeing, and even becoming friends with, our organization’s bullshit. It’s about moving through what’s not working in order to become better, stronger, healthier.
One of my mentors once joked, “you’re a professional improver.” Pretty much. That’s the job.
If we’re going to be serious about combating systemic inequity, we’re going to need all hands on deck. So it’s great that everyone and their mom is an aspiring DEIB professional right now. The more the merrier. But there’s decades of research and work behind this moment and Columbusing DEIB by cobbling together good intentions and a handful of best sellers isn’t helping. The wannabe expertise propping up the DEIB boom isn’t actually serving humans or making our systems healthier.
Here are a few things to avoid.
No, I absolutely do not have all the answers. Not even close. In fact, tip #1 : anyone, and I do mean anyone, who says they have The Answers to make DEIB tick is, in my opinion, a snake oil salesperson. This is not just a philosophical “we always have more to learn” sentiment. It’s a reality check to us English-speaking, Western-educated folks:
We live in a very international world and the fact is that Western ideas about DEIB truly do not translate to other parts of the world “as is”. Exporting DEIB is as colonialist as claiming Western art is prettier. DEIB is about social and cultural capital--it’s as much aesthetic and affect as it is data and stats.
And asking international colleagues to ‘do’ DEIB--a very American invention--is like insisting that their cuisine isn’t as tasty. Surely everyone will be better off with apple pie.
What to do instead? The same way that we ask about pronouns, get curious about colleagues’ experiences. What were they taught? What resonates with them? What is true to who they are?
Which leads to tip #2: Don’t just ask about others’ experiences and say you tried. You don’t conjure up a “safe space” by asking for a safe space. You build trust and rapport over time and through consistent action. If a colleague prefers not to talk about their experience with identity--or was taught that it’s impolite to talk about it--recognize that some cultures and some genders are taught to accommodate you rather than speak up. Your job is to humble yourself to the process instead of assuming it’s going well because no one’s asking you to leave your Western-centric ideals at the door.
Tip #3 might piss you off: Get over your implicit bias training. Many of them simply aren’t based around the science of learning. They can be a great supplement to other culture shift programs, but get real about what implicit bias training actually does and doesn’t do. These are like getting bloodwork done. Highly recommended, incredibly helpful as a generalized diagnostic. But it’s just that: a reflection tool to see where you’re at. They’re one way to assess and triage where to spend additional resources, such as intergroup dialogue, employee listening, coaching, hiring/promotion/retention overhauls, affinity groups, and much more. That’s where the actual improvement lies. Bloodwork is information. Healthier lifestyle is where you heal.
Tip #4. Understand your company’s history of attempting this work. The DEIB field (or whatever it’ll be called in 15 years) is like a yo-yo diet where we swing from one technique to another without embedding the deep work into our companies at an institutional level.
Most of the business leaders I interface with haven’t prioritized equitable workplaces for most of their careers. Not out of malice, but because they don’t know how. And here I am, a whippersnapper compared to their 3+ decades at work. But we all stand on the shoulders of giants and the sooner we see the trajectories that DEIB emerge from, the sooner we’ll be able to make more sustainable People & Culture strategies.
We need everyone at the table to make a better world. I, for one, am delighted you’re at the party. But ask yourself: Are you operating from a place of deep expertise or just good intentions? I, for one, promise to stay humble and hungry too.
I’ll leave with a final tip #5, a cousin to #1. Just like you should not hire someone who claims to have All the Answers, don’t work with a DEIB expert who’s motivated by calling out racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, etc.. Do work with people who are motivated by improvements. Not the sexy, flashy improvements that’ll look good in a PR statement or help your boss feel like they’re winning the woke Olympics. But the ones that build lasting change through healing complex human systems.