Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

Making the Smart Business Case for DEI

Imagine that a company is launching an ambitious IT initiative promising great benefits. The initiative will require behavior change, in some cases significant, from a large number of staff, including those in people management and leadership positions. Senior leaders are on record supporting the initiative with statements like “successful IT is critical to organizational success in the 21st century.”

DEI initiatives
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However, few of the leaders who are funding the project, and even fewer  managers and frontline staff across the organization who are expected to use the system, can speak with any specificity as to exactly how the new system will help the organization reach its goals, nor can they articulate the exact risks if the initiative fails or is prematurely discontinued.

How successful do you think the project will be?

To many people, this may read like a textbook case of an improperly planned change initiative. When we’ve posed this question to seasoned managers, the responses typically range from “doesn’t sound like it’s going to go so well” to “prepare for a total belly flop.” The overarching challenge is clear: How can we expect staff to change their behavior for an organizational initiative, technological or otherwise, when we haven’t explained its value to the organization’s core functions and goals?

And yet, this is how many organizations treat their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

There is no shortage of organizations embarking on DEI work, from established businesses to nonprofits to start-ups. Some have been at it for years, and others are just beginning their journey. And yet, we’ve seen firsthand how differently organizations structure and plan their “business” initiatives, like implementing new technology, compared with those that are DEI-focused.

One of the initial stumbling blocks that can set DEI work adrift is that many leaders do not make the connection between a successful DEI initiative and their organization’s sustained success. That picture of success will look different for a philanthropic organization compared with a professional services firm. Of course, the lack of a clearly articulated “why” is not the only, or even the most significant, challenge this work faces in organizational settings. Apathy, indifference, and outright resistance, oftentimes by the very individuals who need to support such changes, can set a DEI program up for failure from the get-go. But forcing leaders to articulate exactly why and how a DEI initiative will strengthen or move the organization forward can help surface commitment gaps or a lack of understanding about the nature of this work and do so early on.

Too often, organizational leaders embark on this work because “it’s the right thing to do,” complete with statements on social media emphasizing the value of black lives. And yet the majority of any given day is spent solving “business” problems—a decline in customer service ratings or identifying new funding streams. We don’t doubt that many leaders do believe that this work is the right thing to do; that was Jakob’s exact response 8 years ago when, as an executive with a nonprofit that was about to embark on its first DEI project, he was asked by a consultant “But, why do you care about this work?”

But good intentions or general statements are not enough. The truth is that many of us, especially white folks, don’t spend enough time thinking in-depth about issues of race or inequality, especially in our day jobs. We attend diversity trainings but can’t (or don’t) apply what we learned once we’re more than a few days removed from the training. Most of us struggle to find ways to integrate what we learned into our daily behaviors at work, as something being “the right thing to do” assigns it value but doesn’t mean that a frontline manager knows exactly how to behave differently in a staff meeting or how to check in with a team member who may be affected negatively by the news that day.

So how can organizations increase the likelihood that energy around DEI work can generate long-lasting change? We offer four suggestions:

  1. Before hiring a consultant, promoting a team member to be your diversity and inclusion lead, or mandating diversity training, spend a lot of time defining exactly how you believe this work will strengthen your organization. This definition will evolve over time and may change radically. That’s OK. But you must have a starting hypothesis, and assume that the “right thing to do” will not be sufficient to generate consistent behavior change across your organization. There are plenty of “right things” we are struggling to address because behavior change is hard, from climate change to managing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Behavior change requires more than motivation; it requires clear direction and a system that supports the new, desired behaviors.
  2. Understand how DEI can help achieve your strategic goals. For example, in any given year, approximately one-third of U.S. employees feel highly engaged at work. By creating a more inclusive environment and making your staff feel valued as individuals, could you increase engagement and thus output for your organization? How much more successful could you be? There’s one caveat: Be wary of expecting immediate results, financial or otherwise. DEI work is a marathon. When results don’t manifest at the speed of quarterly profits, people start to assume DEI efforts are not worth the trouble. That’s a mistake. Organizational change is hard and often requires sustained energy and focus for benefits to be realized. Instead of expecting a DEI initiative to provide instantaneous kumbaya moments at your next staff meeting, focus on the long-term business goals, such as an increase in innovation or higher customer satisfaction, as a result of more effective teams.
  3. Set realistic expectations for leaders at the outset. In-depth discussions about race can be a new and challenging experience for many white individuals in this country. The same is true for other dominant identities, such as nondisabled people, straight people, etc. Expecting a 3-hour workshop to magically change a lifetime of thinking and behavior is not realistic. Communicate, especially to leaders and people managers, what it is you’re embarking on and that they are expected to participate.
  4. Plan for DEI to be a core business function, like technology or employee safety. Along with setting leaders’ expectations for involvement, it should be clear to everyone in the organization that DEI is not something that needs to “get fixed” before returning to business as usual. Expecting there to be an end state to inclusion and equity is like expecting an end state for IT support. And just as a safety department in a manufacturing company will need to stay abreast of new threats to safety and new innovations to make the workplace more safe, so will every organization committed to ensuring a more inclusive workplace. The threats and solutions to DEI will continue to evolve, and so should your organization.

Following these four strategies will allow you to identify early on where your organization will face its unique challenges around this work and create a foundation for success, including leadership commitment to this work. DEI change management takes stamina, courage, and commitment. A clear North Star can help guide the whole company when the going gets tough (and it will). Knowing your why turns frustration into growth, a necessary quality for any organization looking to create a more inclusive workplace.

Jakob Wolf-Barnett is a senior consultant with Brevity & Wit, a strategy and design firm dedicated to designing a more inclusive world. Minal Bopaiah is the founder of Brevity & Wit and the author of the forthcoming book Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives.