The Evolution of DEI: A Turning Point for Positive Transformation

Jan 4, 2024

Compass with needle pointing the word leadership with blur effect plus blue and black tones.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
– The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King

As you scroll through LinkedIn posts, you’ll inevitably come across discussions about DEI fatigue and the perceived sluggish progress in meeting DEI goals. There’s also no shortage of posts mentioning the backlash against DEI initiatives. These discussions have become prevalent in today’s news cycle. But, here at SunShower Learning, we have an important message to share with business leaders . . . Now is not the time to cut back on your commitment to DEI. In fact, now is the time to show that your DEI pledges are genuine and that your commitments to workplace diversity, equity and inclusion are real. Now is the time to empower people with different backgrounds and perspectives to drive meaningful change, innovation and productivity. It would be tragic to let discouragement and backlash impede, or worse, reverse the collective progress that has been achieved. Your employees, customers and business are relying on you.

Undoubtedly, we are in a new era where certain individuals, organizations and movements actively resist DEI efforts to advance their political and cultural agendas. Simultaneously, it is crucial to acknowledge the shifting landscape. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic murder, corporations and organizations made substantial investments in DEI, responding to the significant demands of their employees, customers and the prevailing cultural climate. However, as some companies report that their investments haven’t realized the expected outcomes, we must pose some essential questions: What exactly were the expectations and measures of success? Were the initiatives adequately integrated into the business and supported by the strategic treatment they warranted? And why should there be contemplation of “diversity ditching” when other facets of learning and development are allowed to progress instead of being abandoned?

The 2024 DEI imperative
As we enter 2024, the imperative for leaders is to evolve DEI work, building on the progress that’s already been made, while simultaneously adapting to the prevailing headwinds and ensuring efficacy in addressing the challenges. This is eloquently outlined by Roger Trapp in a recent Forbes article entitled “Why Companies Should Rethink their Approaches to Diversity.” It’s a Q&A with Janet Ahn, Chief Behavioural Science Officer and U.S. President at the workplace consultancy MindGym, and Dr Lasana Harris, Professor of Social Neuroscience, University College London and an academic board member at the consultancy.

One of the key points made in the article is that the responsibility for this work should not rest solely on the shoulders of a designated DEI leader or department. We need to shift from standalone DEI initiatives to integrating DEI into the core of organizational culture. This entails a strategic, long-term approach, embedding diversity, equity and inclusion into the very fabric of the company. As Lisette Martinez, Chief Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer at the National Audubon Society and a SunShower Learning DEI expert, contends: “DEI is the work of everyone and must be integrated into every function and every goal, operationalized for maximum participation and impact. Folks should have it as part of the work that they do every day. It can’t just be one department or one DEI leader. In fact, no organization should even need a DEI department. If we can get our leaders to integrate this work in their everyday work environment and make clear expectations for their teams, now we’re driving success and really reimagining DEI in a different way where you’re integrating it with the operations of the organization.” (Martinez shares her insights gained over the past two decades in her new eLearning course, DEI Leap.)

Another significant recommendation is the adoption of a customer-centric approach that prioritizes business success. This involves a fundamental shift in perspective whereby DEI is viewed not merely as an end in itself but as a means to achieve broader organizational goals. By aligning DEI efforts with a customer-centric mindset, organizations recognize the value of diverse opinions and skill sets in meeting the diverse needs of their customer base. This approach not only enhances innovation but also encourages a collective commitment to the pursuit of the company’s success among employees. The emphasis on a customer-centric viewpoint suggests that organizations should move beyond setting DEI targets as the primary narrative and, instead, integrate diversity and inclusion seamlessly into their overall strategy. This integration extends from talent attraction and recruitment to performance management and other facets of organizational functioning.

Other topics covered in the article include the idea of sidelining bias versus overtly addressing it. In addition, it’s important to shift from external gestures to a focus on internal culture for impactful change. MindGym also proposes the transformation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) into integrated Business Resource Groups, fostering a shared sense of belonging across the company with clear objectives and accountability.

The four cornerstones of DEI
In light of the current climate, MindGym offers four evidence-based cornerstone behaviors of inclusion and belonging, which have been proven to unite very different groups of people around a common goal. These cornerstones serve to transform and “future-proof” workplace culture in that everyone feels valued, enjoys a sense of belonging and experiences psychological safety. This cultivates creativity, collaboration, innovation, upskilling and cross-cultural communication. 

These four cornerstone behaviors are:

  1. Value Variety: Difference is infinite, but not all differences are equal.
  2. Judge Wisely: Spot the tricks our minds play and outwit them.
  3. Forbid and Forgive: Appreciate the difference between unacceptable misbehavior and a forgivable misstep.
  4. Step Up: There are no angels and villains. We’re all responsible for building, belonging and weaving inclusion into the everyday flow of work.

Opportunity lies within the challenges
As the article beautifully asserts: “The current landscape demonstrates the need for change, so we advise leaders to use this inflection point as a turning point for positive transformation.” The existing approach is being challenged, yes, but we can – we must – find the opportunity in the challenge. This entails shifting to an integrated, customer-centric and less polarizing approach. By doing so, organizations not only address immediate challenges but also lay the foundation for building a culture of belonging, where diversity and inclusion exist as integral components of the workplace environment. Fostering a sense of belonging becomes a shared responsibility, contributing to the creation of a workplace where every individual feels valued, included and an essential part of the organizational fabric.

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At SunShower Learning, our unwavering commitment has been to assist organizations in educating their employees and equipping them with practical skills. For nearly two decades, our training programs have emphasized the power of confidently addressing stereotypes or countering microaggressions without resorting to blame or shame. The proven effectiveness of our Ouch! techniques is reflected in their enduring impact, as individuals consistently apply these skills long after completing the eLearning course. By incorporating these skills in all aspects of the workplace, including talent attraction, recruitment and performance management, organizations can operationalize the work of creating a more inclusive workplace where people experience a genuine sense of belonging and equity.