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Corporate DEI Work Must Center on the Individual Journey or it Will Fail

Corporate DEI Work Must Center on the Individual Journey or it Will Fail

With the pressure corporations are under to demonstrate progress in their DEI efforts, I see a lot of companies focusing their resources on DEI-focused training and recruiting. Only focusing here will lead to certain failure.

DEI change starts at the individual level. This is a tough truth to face at a large company, because it can feel impossible to drive change at anything but a policy or process level. But until you help people understand why DEI impacts them, what they can change given their role and span of control, they won’t know what to do because they won’t have internalized the need for transformative change DEI requires.

So much of DEI work is behavioral, yet we often treat it as an intellectual exercise. We assume that by providing employees with more information, they will know what to do.

Yet, the information is often received as overwhelming or too abstract to relate to their day-to-day lives. This leaves employees stuck and frustrated. Now they know more about what needs to change and why, but still don’t know what to do.

[Related: Antiracism and the Future of Diversity Programs]

Processes and policies are absolutely important in DEI work. Without these, we have no way to drive change across an organization in a consistent way, and no grounds for reinforcing accountability for change. But at the core of the work are all the individual employees, at all levels, who have to buy into it for it to work. They need to very clearly know what is in it for them.

It’s easy to feel intimidated or uncertain about asking everyone to start behaving differently. Especially because so much of the behavior is at a micro, throughout-the-day level. Acknowledging that this is a shared journey is an important first step. If you are leading this work, you need to be looking at your own behavior, too.

Think of situations where you’ve tried to change your behavior, maybe starting a new workout routine, or changing your eating habits. You are probably perfectly clear on the benefits of these changes, yet there is inertia working against you to stay the same. It’s hard to start, and if you do start, it’s tough to keep it up, because it requires consistent intention to do so. This can feel draining, time-consuming, aggravating.

Now expand this to thinking about every assumption you make throughout your day at work, whether or not that is based on a bias or is perpetuating a bias, or leading to something that could hold someone from a historically marginalized group back. And multiply that by all the people at your company who need to be asking the same questions. This is the level of behavioral change that needs to happen to drive DEI-positive behaviors and make any process or policy stick.

[Related: How to Challenge Resistance to DEI Change]

Intentionally or not, bias has been embedded in our ways of working. Changing this is so hard because calling out individual level issues can make people defensive. It requires a delicate approach to get people to get comfortable with the idea of change and to see what they are doing to resist it, even if it's not intellectually what they believe.

And it does have to start from an individual level. If it's pushed down from the top without helping employees understand why and what's in it for them, many will check out or work around anything new. And then you're dealing with that as an additional issue.

You really need a grassroots approach to drive change that is concurrently led through example from the top, so those not in leadership roles can trust it is safe to change and see it in action. Then the design and implementation of new processes and policies can be done. Rolling those out will reinforce the change and put it in a new context.

If there is openness at the individual level, people can learn to change. It requires a willingness to take a hard look at your own blind spots and assumptions. But if you can put ego aside and do that in order to learn and grow, change is definitely possible. Getting everyone to do that together at the same time is what is so hard.

We're all starting from different points, and there is a difference between intellectually understanding what should be done differently and changing your behavior to make it happen. Help everyone map their own personal journey and you can make great progress.

[Related: A Harassment-Free Workplace: Where Social Justice Meets the Bottom Line]

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Michelle Bogan's mission is to help companies create equitable workplaces. She is the Founder and CEO of Equity At Work, helping leaders achieve major impact through their diversity, inclusion, and equity work. Follow her on LinkedIn and visit her website.


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