In this post, I explain limitations to widespread diversity approaches and propose alternative strategies to better integrate diversity into your organization’s core operations.
The business case for diversity has encouraged many leaders to employ it as a key element of their core strategy for a high performing organization. In an effort to act on this knowledge, leaders across various industries post diversity statements on their website, meet periodically with diversity personnel to review diversity goals, update employees, and sometimes the public, on progress, and are privy to a diversity council (Smith and Stockton, 2014).
Additionally, organizations often implement one-off, peripheral-to-core-operations diversity trainings (i.e. 2-8 hour diversity trainings, 10-30 minutes of a staff meeting, once or twice a year in strategic planning retreats or new hire onboarding conferences) and cultural holiday events (i.e. “Cinco de Mayo day”). Larger, well-funded organizations create marginal structures (i.e. affinity groups and resource groups) and compensated roles (i.e. small ratio of diversity officer to other positions, small diversity teams in HR departments.)
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Unfortunately, for many organizations, these efforts feel substantial and expensive but have yielded slow progress. Some have deduced that inclusion and diversity stats prove entrenched and impossible to ameliorate. “The problem” is often cast as outside of the organization. But, if we allow ourselves to start with a look in the mirror, the data has taught us that these in-house strategies, though widespread, have significant limitations.
One theme in all of the aforementioned widespread strategies, that is often overlooked, is that they systematically and structurally separate diversity work from the organization’s core operations. In many cases, over 80 percent of the employees have little-to-no responsibility for the diversity work of the organization.
Such conditions design a high effort: low results scenario. The high effort put into designing organizational structures and planning trainings often yield a low return of staff acquisition of new skills and behaviors. On the one hand, employees often express that the I & D trainings are underwhelming and of little reach or impact; or highly disorienting, and still, of little reach or impact. On the other hand, diversity staff expend high effort in planning and structuring. They usually experience overwhelm, under-support, marginalization, very limited power even with a leadership title, and compromised social capital. There is often not a mobility ladder for people who take on these roles either, lessening structural incentive. It's no wonder progress is slow.
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In what follows, I further explain limitations to the widespread approaches mentioned earlier and end with alternative strategies to better integrate diversity into your organization’s core operations.
1. Limitations of the One-off, Peripheral-to-Core-Operations Diversity Programming Strategy
Bazrukova, Jehn, and Spell’s (2008) review of 178 studies of diversity trainings find that one-off, professional development trainings were reviewed less positively than integrated approaches. Similarly, in my research, participants frequently qualify trainings as superficial, underwhelming, too academic, and not context-specific enough. In the most pressing cases, unspoken tensions and conflicts get ripened and organization leaders are frequently unprepared to handle post-training disequilibrium. Further, stand-alone trainings typically involve read-a-text-and-discuss and lecture formats. Sometimes, trainings expand to include survey/interview HR data and low-risk, low-challenge coaching for the leadership bench. After these various forms of one-off training sessions, however, business is back to usual. In effect, behavioral shifts tend to be infrequent and slow, and diversity and inclusion challenges, again, appear ubiquitous and unrelenting.
Meanwhile, the one-off, cultural-holiday-event strategy often oversimplifies inclusion to the point of distortion. It usually manifests as cultural food selections, music, decorations, and light education. Such events cannot displace the more substantive work of transforming a workplace to attract, retain, promote, and sustain diversity. Essentially, one-off, peripheral-to-core-operations strategies retain the same organizational structure, systems, and climate. One risk of homogeneity is that biases can implicitly impact organizational services and products without anyone being the wiser.
2. Limitations to the Marginal Structures and Ad Hoc Group Strategy
I’ve seen that the most significant limitation of this strategy is that intellectual work created in marginal structures tend to stay marginal, rarely penetrating the core operations. In effect, the organization’s global strategy is likely to stagnate, or unfold but exclude the diverse talent contributions the organization worked diligently to recruit. In the end, the organization’s value proposition to the public is attenuated.
3) Limitations to the Low Ratio of Diversity Roles to other Staff Roles.
Has your organization hired a singular inclusion & diversity (I&D) director to guide the work of a team of more than 50? or Hired a small HR team of 20 to guide the I & D work of 500? My research shows that a low ratio of diversity roles to other staff roles sets the realization of your diversity commitment up for failure before it starts. These types of organizational structures inadvertently relieve staff in non-diversity titled roles of the I & D work of the organization. You may hear colleagues commenting, "The diversity work is extra." "That's not in my job description." "We don't need that." "I'm not trying to save the world. I just want to make a comfortable living."
One obvious, but ineffectual solution is for an organization to create more singular diversity roles or blended diversity-and-other work roles. One barrier to the first suggestion is cost. One disadvantage to the second suggestion is that the quality of work of either focus often suffers. Another obvious, but ineffectual solution I've seen is to repeatedly say to staff members, "inclusion and diversity is everybody's job." Talking the talk, without a way to walk the talk.
A less obvious, but more effective solution: Assess every aspect of your internal operations and look for key places to integrate I & D. For example,
Start with your outcomes and indicators of accomplishing your organization’s mission. Are there racial+ patterns? [Racial+ refers to intersections between race, gender, sexual orientation, thought, political spectrum, age, etc.] In schools, you might look at academic achievement or discipline data. In nonprofits and tech corporations, you might look at hiring, promotion, job satisfaction, company culture, and attrition data.
Then begin an inquiry about how your daily operations inform the creation of these patterns. Social scientists have proven in countless studies that racial+ patterns get produced by business as usual. It gets created by regular, good-intentioned people just doing their jobs everyday. In-house, in plain sight. For help with useful frameworks and data collection on what might be happening right underneath your nose, consider Racial+ Equitecture's Status Quo Mapping service.
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Revise your PD approach. Extend from lecture-based, video-watching, read-a-book-and-discuss trainings. It may be efficient for communicating information to a larger number of people at once in the short term, but is it cost-effective in the mid- and long term? Does the high effort put into planning yield a high return of staff acquisition of new skills, knowledge, and behaviors? Disrupt the hum drum, predictable, status quo of trainings/staff meetings where employees repeatedly arrive, sit for a few hours and leave, largely untransformed. One approach I prefer is a mix of experiential learning with adaptive leadership (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). Curious about what this would look like? Consider Racial+ Equitecture's Crucible Experience.
Expand your coaching model from 1:1 (dean of students: student, principal:teacher, manager:HR business partner, mentor:mentee) to a whole-group, systematic coaching model. Expanding your coaching model from 1:1 to a group re-distributes the egoistic, emotional, and existential work of I & D to everyone on the team, regardless of position, title, status, or experience. In this model, no one person or a few are marginally responsible for the diversity work of the organization. The Racial+ Equitecture Crucible Experience involves such a model.
Re-look at Perceived “Isolated Incidents” or Flashpoints. It can feel reassuring to treat flashpoint race+ related events as solitary, an outlier, or just one bad apple in the bunch. However, the inclusion-related tensions that arise between two people are often a symptom of something invisibly happening team-wide and in the organizational culture. Though it might be hard to believe at first, this is how implicit bias works. It's not readily observable in real time. Keep in mind that inclusion-related tensions can multiply. When problems start popping up among various dyads and triads of people it’s harder to maintain that the root cause lies in individuals or that the incidents are isolated from each other. Consider that ‘incidents” might be symptomatic of a larger, invisible-to-some issue.
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Bio: Greetings, I'm Dr. Myosha McAfee, the founder of Racial Equitecture (R+E), a company revolutionizing inclusion and diversity. I am no stranger to thinking scary big to undertake the most pressing issues of the 21st century. I help organizations unpack how implicit bias may be occurring in-house, with high support and high challenge. The Racial+ Equitecture Crucible Experience, one of my most inventive solutions, facilitates a productive container for leaders in committed-to-diversity organizations to dive deep, face discomfort, surface biases and seriously grapple with institutional issues. To workplace equity, inclusion, and diversity (EID) challenges, I bring what social scientists know about social inequality, what iconoclasts know about leadership, and what educators know about helping others acquire new skills. Is your EID strategy fresh, fearless, and forward? Come get some. For inquiries Dr. McAfee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.