Woke-Washing vs. Culture Change: How DEI can really make a difference

Fortune Magazine announced that its 2021 Fortune 500 would include rankings for Diversity and Inclusion. Last year, LinkedIn found that Chief Diversity Officer was the fastest growing C-suite title. DEI has gone mainstream. But, is it working?

To get some perspective, I talked to Quionna Allen from Beyond Racial Equity. 

Q: It appears that corporate America is finally embracing diversity, equity and inclusion. From what you’re seeing, are we moving in the right direction and are things changing?

A: There is much more energy behind these initiatives and it’s a great thing to see. DEI is incredibly big and overwhelming and for many organizations they didn’t know where to start. So for a long time they did nothing or what they did was superficial. Seeing organizations take action – any action – is a good step. 

The challenge now is to channel that energy into more progress and sustainable changes. A big part of that is focusing on systems versus focusing on individuals. Dealing with systems isn’t as easy or optic-friendly, but that is how you can affect real impact.

Q: Tell me more about the difference between “DEI for optics” and DEI for real change?

A: First of all, let’s be clear. DEI is not a project. You can’t simply hire more People of color or send some managers to training and check DEI off your list. These actions are often viewed as quick wins. “Look, we increased our workforce diversity by X%, we sent X number of people to training!” With pressure to show progress, it’s natural these kinds of superficial activities become the priority. Yet, we are dealing with much broader, systemic issues. 

What good is hiring a more diverse workforce if there isn’t a culture in place to include them, give them a sense of belonging and set them up for success? For many organizations, real progress is tied to an overall culture change. Tactical projects don’t substitute for an overarching strategy designed to sustain progress for the long term. 

Q: What are some of the challenges of developing an effective DEI strategy?

There are many, but I’ll give you three: scope, alignment, and measurement. 

From a scope stand point, DEI has historically been closely associated with HR, and naturally so. Afterall, the most obvious topics to address are talent management and HR policies. Yet, DEI can’t remain a separate, isolated initiative if it is to be truly effective. It needs to be embedded in the organization’s purpose and values. It must be an integral part of business strategy. It’s much more about the heart of how we work together and make decisions than it is about how many people attended sensitivity training. 

And this leads to alignment. We rarely see a DEI strategy that has equal support and shared goals between DEI leaders and the rest of the executive and management team. All executives must see DEI as a core part of their own charter and passionately sponsor DEI work. This simply isn’t happening enough.

Finally measurement. Too often DEI is measured in activity or outcomes, but rarely both. How can we reach a goal if we haven’t defined what that goal is – both in activities and outcomes? Of course, one challenge with a focus on outcomes is that many of these outcomes require significant time horizons. We need clear measures of real time activities that drive to that outcome.  But, if the focus is just on activities (e.g. managers trained), we miss seeing the big picture and the more strategic, longer-horizon outcomes.  Measuring both provides the leading indicators to make sure we are headed in the right direction, and the lagging indicators of the progress towards our overall outcome. 

Q. You and I have spent a great deal of time talking about decision making and DEI. What’s the connection in your view?

A. Overall, one of underlying systemic issues we face is that decision making is not inclusive enough. If we were to survey employees around the world, this would arise as a very common theme.  

Often, decisions are made by leaders that are too far away from the work, or simply don’t take advantage of the breadth of perspective available to them – even on their own teams. Managers think they have a full perspective but are only seeing a fraction of the overall picture. 

Multiply this across both strategic and operational decisions and you can see how this adds huge risk and creates avoidable blinds spots – not only in internal-facing decisions but also externally. 

How do executives expect to fully be able to address cultural issues when they can’t fully see them? How do they expect to build a culture of belonging, inclusion and innovation with a work environment characterized by decision making handed down from the proverbial ivory tower?

Power for decision making rests with a select few. And in order to build a culture of inclusion in the decision making process, we have to provide an efficient, easy way to gather meaningful input across all stakeholders. 

Again, when we think about DEI we often think of changes relating to people policies and HR. But you simply can’t build a truly inclusive, equitable organization without addressing key business systems such as how you make decisions.

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About Quionna Allen and Beyond Racial Equity

Quionna Allen CPC, ELI-MP is the co-founder Beyond Racial Equity, a US-based consultancy dedicated to empowering leaders to build equitable organizations. After decades of experience in HR and DEI work across a range of industries, Quionna, and her co-founder Tara Jenkins, became deeply unsatisfied with traditional approaches to EDI. Far too often, they had watched well-intentioned “solutions” result in superficial actions which were ineffective at addressing the root causes of systemic racism. In response, the Beyond Racial Equity team developed a comprehensive framework that guides organizational leaders step-by-step through the process of building an equitable organization, from gaining a better understanding systemic racism through to the creation of a truly equitable work culture. While the program is comprehensive, it is also customized to match each client’s cultural journey and desired outcomes. Find our more about Beyond Racial Equity here: https://www.beyondracialequity.com/ 

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