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3 Crucial DEI Learnings for 2021

Dec 18, 2020
10 min read

As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultancy, we’ve experienced the full spectrum in 2020

When the pandemic hit, like many companies, we feared the worst and immediately saw a decrease in interest, commitment, and search for our services.

But just as suddenly, the death of George Floyd, amplified by the tireless work of generations of organizers and the BLM movement, sparked a renewed focus on racial justice that suddenly caused companies to reinvest. Overnight, our inboxes became flooded with demand, unlike anything we’d ever seen before.

In the weeks following racial justice protests all over the world, some orgs scrambled to save face by making public statements and big donations, without investing in the real work to create a better reality for their marginalized employees.

But amidst all the well-meaning, but mostly empty gestures, we were lucky to partner with dozens of great companies committed to using this moment to take it beyond socially conscious posturing, and make a real investment in structural change within their organizations.

Here’s a few of our biggest diversity, equity + inclusion takeaways to anchor your company’s DEI strategies in 2021.

Photo of woman with brown curly hair wearing a mask, smiling while Zoom-ing from phone.
Photo of woman with brown curly hair wearing a mask, smiling while Zoom-ing from phone.

1. We’re Saying Goodbye to The Year of “Nice”

If there ever was a year when people didn’t want to “get it wrong,” 2020 was it. From June to December, we spoke to thousands of employees across the globe across dozens of in-depth culture assessments, and we saw lots and lots of “nice cultures.” That sounds nice, right?

Not quite. While it was admirable how many companies and their teams wanted to “do the right thing” and avoid hurting their colleagues, this pervasive desire to shy away from the hard stuff often masked tension bubbling beneath the surface and kept people from addressing very real issues in their cultures.

The fact that organizations struggle with having tough conversations isn’t really surprising when you consider how polarized our society is at large, matched with the very real risk of getting publicly dragged for getting it wrong. Given the minefield we’re navigating, many employees found that they didn’t have the basic communication skills to confront tensions with colleagues (with care) when they bubbled up and over. Whether it was managing a disagreement, giving feedback, or calling “in” problematic behaviors, many teams expressed opting for avoidance and “niceness” over direct, compassionate conversations that could lead to real change.

Everyone is so worried about saying the wrong thing that nobody’s having the honest conversations that lead to true alignment.

So, rather than dancing around the hard topics and avoiding multiple elephants in the Zoom room, how do we get this right?

For one, instead of avoiding difficult conversations, we need to start up-skilling teams to lean into them. This isn’t easy and doesn’t look pretty, but what doesn’t get discussed still sits below the surface. This is what has been happening for generations, and we haven’t made enough progress because of it. To change this trajectory, we all have to re-skill towards having the capacity for difficult conversations.

A Few Tips for Moving From “False Harmony” to “Real Alignment” in 2021

  1. Normalize getting it wrong. Many companies ask how they can avoid making mistakes or hurting people. The truth is, that’s pretty damn impossible. That fear of getting it wrong is what prevents people from engaging meaningfully, especially across difference. Throw out the notion of perfection, and instead, lean into asking yourself the questions: “How can I make it right when I inevitably mess up? How can I be thoughtful about how I engage with others to minimize harm?” Which brings me to my next point…
  2. Learn to take accountability. We hear a lot about “cancel culture” and, I for one, am not a fan. But there’s a difference between being “cancelled” for making a mistake or saying the wrong thing, and being asked to take accountability. Invest in owning your impact (not just your intention). Learn how to make it right, and understand how to not make the same mistake over again.

    Hot take: Just like people have different love languages, people need different apologies too. Check out The Five Languages of Apology to learn more about what restitution looks like to you.
  3. Don’t confuse discomfort for a lack of safety. As much as people love to cause drama on the internet, I’ve personally found that most people IRL are pretty conflict-averse. We do not like to feel uncomfortable. And while too much discomfort certainly may be a signal that the situation lacks safety, the right amount of discomfort is often necessary to move forward in conflict and find alignment. Surfacing bias, being confronted by a perspective that’s different than your own––each of those things is uncomfortable. In 2021, consider walking towards that discomfort bravely. You might be surprised where it takes you.
Photo of man wearing a cream-colored hat and sweater working at a desk. Photo by @Surface
Photo of man wearing a cream-colored hat and sweater working at a desk. Photo by @Surface

2. Trust is Gone, And Rebuilding it Will Take Time

It’s great that a lot of people and companies are now “ready” to “do the work,” but the reality is — they might not find an audience of BIPOC folks ready to celebrate their efforts or happily join arms in doing “the work” together.

As we’ve talked to employees in focus groups and interviews, particularly those from marginalized communities, there is an exhaustion there––a frustration––because many have been volunteering their time and tirelessly trying to make their voices heard for a while now. While it’s great that people are finally listening, for many, the disappointment that it took this long is real.

To add fuel to the fire, many employees we spoke to felt burned by inaction or inconsistent follow-through in addressing harmful behaviors or DEI issues in the past.

This can be a tough pill to swallow for many leaders who want to do the right thing but are, unfortunately, at this point, behind the curve.

Here’s a story from our Head of Consulting, Alex Suggs:

“Leadership is often unaware that trust has even been lost. When things in the past have caused employees harm, the effects of this ‘broken deal’ linger on. For instance, one client had a leader who did a lot of harm to the organization. Rather than fire him and make an example of his poor behavior and values misalignment, he was seen as protected by employees because he was on important projects. He was later let go when it was more convenient to the firm.

Leadership was adamant that they ‘handled’ this, and therefore employees needed to move on, but they failed to recognize that from the outside, employees created a narrative that
company values only mattered until there was something (like profit) at stake.

This caused a lot of distrust. It’s important for leadership to recognize that even when they feel they’ve ‘handled’ something, we must bring employees along on the journey and keep them informed. AND it’s important they acknowledge any missteps on their end. Finally, if a leadership team is willing to be values-forward until a difficult decision needs to be made, employees will question if leadership actually means what they say and if they will act with integrity.”

Alex continues:

“Leadership’s inability to speak up on key issues in the public affecting their employees has lasting implications around trust. For instance, if a CEO was unwilling to speak up in light of the racial injustice and murder of George Floyd, they need to be aware of how this impacted their employees, especially Black employees. Silence is a statement. On the flip side, if leaders did speak on this without follow-through, trust can also be lost.

Lastly, trust doesn’t come from words: it comes from repeated actions. For example, a company can say that they want employees to report non-inclusive behaviors, but if an employee goes to their managers with issues and is repeatedly met with dismissal, the trust ends. Ultimately, trust starts at the top, but it doesn’t end with the top

So — how do we start rebuilding trust, IRL?

There’s no perfect formula for this (okay maybe our dream Auntie, Brené Brown, has one), but the number one thing to keep in mind is that it takes time. Presence. Character.

As Brené Brown says, “Trust is earned in the smallest of moments. It is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection.”

An (easier said than done) tip for rebuilding trust:

Try not to get defensive or exasperated when people aren’t overflowing with gratitude for your DEI efforts. Instead, create space for folks to feel. For instance, when you get in a fight with someone, sometimes people just need a little bit of time and space to be able to “move on.” And even then —

Moving on is a process that requires us to take a series of opposite actions. There has to be that time that lapses. We have to stay patient and persistent along the journey.

So if you’re aiming to build trust for the right reasons, then the journey is very-much-so the destination. Every moment with your team is an opportunity to live out your values. And while this might sound honorable, it’s actually really difficult work. Within the larger context of systemic injustice, embodying DEI values-aligned action in our lives and workplaces often feels dangerously counter-cultural, and disruptive (not in the sexy tech way, but in the “ugh, this actually feels super icky and awkward and I’m terrified” way).

So if you’re not feeling a bit nervous and vulnerable, chances are, you’re playing it safe and centering the status quo, which is likely not the move that will earn the trust of your most marginalized team members.

Image of small cactus next to a roll of measuring tape. Photo by Charles Deluvio
Image of small cactus next to a roll of measuring tape. Photo by Charles Deluvio

3. Without Accountability, DEI Efforts Won’t Hold Water

Contrary to popular belief, DEI doesn’t move forward because of a lack of good intentions, but rather a lack of accountability structures in place.

In 2020, this was not lost on employees, many of whom expressed skepticism about the actual impact or momentum that would ultimately come out of their companies’ DEI efforts. Not because of a lack of passion or vision, but because no one was held accountable when the effort didn’t lead to real change.

After years of helping companies craft and execute DEI strategies, I can attest that the missing ingredient for most solid DEI plans is that there are no repercussions for not hitting your goals. We’ve found that most companies who are investing in DEI work want to do the right thing, but without KPIs, without structural guardrails for the outcomes they are trying to achieve, real progress often falls short and employees perceive DEI as an extracurricular or vanity work. Not a good look.

This can further compound issues around investment in DEI, with leaders pointing to a lack of progress as a reason not to continue to invest or prove that the strategies themselves don’t work.

But here’s the thing: within any org, most people (who want to keep their jobs) aim to meet the outlined expectations of their role.

For most organizations, being equitable and inclusive, and creating structures with equity and inclusion in mind, have not been “expectations” that have been communicated concretely nor built into performance metrics.

They might be “values” — but that leaves a lot of room for nothing to happen.

How to embed accountability into your DEI process

An example: If you take any given team, there are likely at least a few folks who are passionate about DEI. There are other folks who are living it, and then there are a lot of folks who default to thinking it’s not really for them, and as long as they don’t say anything blatantly racist or sexist, they should be OK…

So if we offer that same team the option to show up to a DEI training, chances are, many of the folks who are most deficient in DEI skills might be the last to show up. Again, they might think these spaces are not “for” them, or that “diversity” has nothing to do with them. If nobody is holding them accountable for attending, it’s likely a big leap for them to be vulnerable and voluntarily take time out of their schedule to show up to a new, uncomfortable space out of their own free will.

When it becomes a part of the company policy, however (for instance, everyone must attend 2 DEI discussions per year; participation in DEI efforts is part of your responsibilities), then we can expect our teams to follow suit. And likely, actually learn new skill sets around DEI that allow them to become more equitable and inclusive champions of the organization.

In essence…

The time has come to get crystal-clear and explicit about diversity, equity, and inclusion as a must-have, not a nice to have. When leadership, HR, management, the manual, the website, the meetings, and everything else is in alignment around DEI and everyone is held accountable for progress, the results we can expect are likely beyond anything we can imagine.

As a company that is wholeheartedly front-and-center, engaging in the practices of diversity, equity and inclusion — though not perfect, we can tell you: the dynamism, the belonging, the creativity, the dedication, the purpose, and the joy that many of us feel is unparalleled.

We invite you to get involved.

Kellie WagnerKellie Wagner

Founder & CEO @ Collective | Writer | Champion for Inclusion & Diversity in the Workplace and Mental Health Awareness