2020 was an incredible catalyst for change, demanding ongoing pivots from so many companies. As we all began adjusting to the now cringe-worthy phrase, “the new normal,” America was rocked by the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed. Companies everywhere scrambled to respond and searched for how to meet the outcry from employees, customers, boards, vendors, and shareholders. Already exhausted leadership teams turned their attention to the national conversation and rushed to release statements, host focus groups, and deliver DEI sensitivity training. Nearly a year later, many are left scratching their heads as to why they haven’t managed to move the needle in their DEI efforts. Employees are wondering when real change might actually happen. And shareholders are asking for more.
So what happens…why are all of these great intentions not netting out into actual results? Our work in this space is agnostic of industry and spans companies of all sizes. We work with DEI experts in some organizations, alongside HR in others, and often with C-Suite teams. From our work and research, we know there are 10 big reasons DEI efforts fail. Over this series, we will share those with you to illuminate the missteps and offer a guide for how you can rise above, reaping the biggest impact from your investment. These are in no particular order, as the secret sauce to getting this “right” is mitigating these issues within your organization.
1. Not starting at the top
This can be one of the hardest things for those organizations where DEI professionals or HR professionals are leading the efforts. Time and time again, organizations want to begin this work as quickly as possible. They want to move quickly, and yet without authentic executive support, the work will not be impactful. While most executives would say they are in support of DEI work, that doesn’t net out into the authentic support needed to make a true impact. The problem is that this is a deeply personal journey. Long-held beliefs are sometimes challenged, and these issues can touch places like religion, politics, and experiences from our past – all things that we don’t usually talk about at work. Getting authentic support often requires a mindset shift amongst members of the executive team, and without that, employees can quickly sniff out that this work is not going to have a real impact.
2. Fear of failure
One of the reasons senior leaders (and really leaders at all levels) are hesitant about this work comes from a good place – they don’t want to do it wrong. They are terrified of a misstep, and so they don’t take any steps. What makes headlines so often are the mistakes leaders make, saying the wrong thing, in the wrong way, to the wrong person. Terms like “cancel culture” come about and a narrative around what happens to those who said the wrong thing grows stronger. We all decide what we will or won’t do based on a set of beliefs we have from our experiences. When we see others who lose their careers or suddenly are negatively cast in the spotlight, it can be easy to feel like just not saying anything is the best bet. Furthermore, many of us are wired to want to do things the “right way” and that’s often been a recipe for success for our careers. However, there is no manual for this. I often tell executives that I cannot provide a binder and have them turn to page 46 to read all the ins and outs of having a great conversation with a person who doesn’t look like them. And yet, without that and with the building anxiety around what happens if they get it wrong, fear of failure stops many in their tracks.
3. Fear of unintended consequences
Once the walls are down, one of the fears we often hear is that of unintended consequences. This fear comes from a place of anxiety and yet, it can feel so real and can provide a great justification for not fully engaging in this work. Senior leaders are, of course, acutely aware of the performance they need their organization to deliver. Unfortunately, they sometimes operate under the assumption that the only way they can achieve that is through hiring, engaging, and promoting the same people they always have. They fear that in opening the door to diversity, they will have to sacrifice performance. Their anxiety leads them to believe it’s an “either-or” versus an “AND” conversation. In fact, this apprehension causes them to dismiss findings such as the 2019 work from McKinsey that found companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36 percent in profitability, slightly up from 33 percent in 2017 and 35 percent in 2014. They brush aside findings like the BCG research that found companies with diverse management teams to have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Instead, their fear drives them to dig their heels in and resist change. And this resistance can sometimes go unnoticed or undiagnosed for a while, and can often be more of a passive resistance than an outward protest… yet yielding a similar lack of results. The worst part is that it can take so long to even uncover.