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How to Challenge Resistance to DEI Change

How to Challenge Resistance to DEI Change

Many organizations have made statements in support of DEI but are slow to make progress. Leadership may be misaligned, other priorities may be competing for attention, and work can be delegated to people who can’t drive decisions.

This resistance to change, whether intentional or not, is one of the biggest issues my clients face. It can come in direct forms, but more often is passive and indirect.

[Related: Are You a Change Maker or a Change Avoider?]

Here are three common examples:

  1. The issue is delegated to ERGs to solve — and yet ERGs are usually comprised mostly of more junior level employees who are the ones facing the problem in the first place, and they don’t have the power or access to drive real change.
  2. There is little to no resourcing — because DEI is not historically a standing line item on a P&L, leaders often ask those passionate about driving change to take the lead and do the best they can with what they’ve got (which usually means doing this as a side project on top of their full-time job, with no budget and no extra pay).
  3. The goal is just to “do better” — if you don’t know what you are aiming for, it is virtually impossible to be successful in making meaningful, positive change happen.

I don’t think these actions are taken to intentionally slow anything down. Most leaders and employees genuinely want DEI work to make a positive difference in their organizations. So what is behind this?

Many times it comes down to a lack of alignment and prioritization at the top — which is really the rigor of making DEI a strategic priority. Leadership may be aligned on the sentiment behind DEI, but not how to go about driving change.

In addition, there is often also a fear of what will be uncovered as the work gets underway. What if there is a deeper issue at play, or the change is so systemic that we need to overhaul the way we’ve always worked? Combine misalignment, uncertainty about how to move forward, and fear of what may come, and you’e got a perfect formula for stalling out.

[Related: It’s Time to Ditch the Lip Service and Snuff Out Systemic Racism]

So how can you break down this resistance and make positive DEI change happen now?

  • Get grounded in the pain points DEI issues are causing the business - both in terms of performance and in terms of people. Are you losing clients? Investors? Key talent? These are things leaders are measured on regularly and highly incentivized to fix if broken.
  • Articulate exactly what you mean by DEI. How do diversity, equity, and inclusion align with your core values, culture, and business proposition? How will customers, shareholders, and employees experience them in their interactions with your company?
  • Make DEI a standing agenda item on all town hall and leadership team meetings. Do regular reporting out on actions, learnings, progress, upcoming events, and ways to get involved. Keep DEI top of mind and highly accessible.
  • Incorporate allyship into your DEI approach at every turn. Ask influential, passionate employees at all levels to get involved and advocate on your behalf. Use DEI meetings and events as opportunities to educate and inform everyone so they can all be part of the solution planning and delivery.
  • Set measurable goals and say them OUT LOUD. Publish them, track progress against them, share what you learn, and pivot if needed. Make sure they are both ambitious and grounded in the reality of where you are starting. Align resources to make the most important goals highly achievable.
  • Remember that small acts add up to big change. Storytelling is a powerful tool here. Highlight the changes that made a real difference to an employee, in getting a new client, in anticipating a customer’s need. This will create tremendous momentum.

DEI change isn’t up to any one of us. It’s up to all of us. Partnership is at the core of all of this work, starting at the very top. If you sense DEI is a solo mission in your organization, that's a clear sign that resistance is in play and it is time to use the steps above to intervene.

[Related: How to Have Difficult Conversations]


Michelle Bogan is the Founder and CEO of Equity At Work and on the Investment Committee for the RevTech Equity For Women fund. Follow her on LinkedIn and visit her website.

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