Connection Is More Effective Than Diversity. Try These Six Tactics

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

Most corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts have been focused on representation of differences in the workforce, but those efforts are failing: They’re not sufficiently tied to corporate profit and C-suite support for DEI roles has fallen significantly. Plus, DEI efforts may have been focused on the wrong things, according to a recent conversation with Justin Michael Williams, an award-winning author and Grammy-nominated recording artist and Shelly Tygielski, a mindfulness meditation teacher and the founder of the mutual aid community organization Pandemic of Love; Williams and Tygielski are co-authors of the new book How We Ended Racism: Realizing a New Possibility in One Generation.

Corporate diversity can be perceived as performative or tokenism, says Tygielski, and Williams lays out the current state of the problem: “We’ve worked with companies that have hit their KPIs or their metrics; they’ve held the numbers; they have diverse people on the board. They have diverse leadership—and their employees are still saying, ‘It doesn’t feel safe and it doesn’t feel diverse here.’ They could have a manager of color, a team with half people of color, and they say no. And the reason why is because there may be diverse people but it doesn’t feel safe to speak up. They don’t feel honored for their culture, they don’t feel welcome for their gender; there are all kinds of things that haven’t shifted in the culture.” In fact, he adds, “It is easier for a bunch of homogeneous people to be productive and effective than it is for a diverse group of people to be productive and effective. So we have to become more skilled at connection if we want to be in a diverse environment.”

Using a diversity-by-the-numbers approach, says Tygielski, “becomes one more thing to check off; it’s really inauthentic, and inauthentic efforts don’t change culture.” She points out that companies often don’t know what to do when their DEI efforts fail. Some treat diversity efforts as “a moment in history, hoping we never have to do that again but can just go back to business as usual. We’re not willing to lean into having these vulnerable conversations about failure—not as a way of saying, ‘Look how weak and how terrible this thing went,’ but rather, ‘This is an opportunity for us to do things better to get it right.’”

Here are six approaches that can make DEI initiatives more successful.

Ensure Consistency Between Goals And Structures

It’s not enough to bring in more diverse talent, says Williams, despite the investment in this particular aspect of DEI over the last few years. He notes that one company he’s worked with spent lots of money on recruitment and doubled the number of people they interviewed to ensure they’d find enough diverse talent, but within 18 months, 75% of the diverse talent left.

Measuring a cultural shift “can be qualitatively hard to measure,” notes Tygielski, and companies often rely instead on the metrics like hours spent in training. But training compliance is insufficient if people don’t have the tools and structural support they need to actually make changes. She offers the example of corporate wellness programming: Although companies might bring in a Zumba instructor weekly, the breakroom might still have machines selling soda and candy. “You’re essentially giving mixed messages,” says Tygielski, rather than providing comprehensive, consistent solutions.

Don’t Rely On Hierarchical Leaders

It’s not enough to provide training for leaders who have formal authority, Williams points out, because “if you’re trying to change culture in an organization, you have to teach everyone.” For instance, he says, if a company only teaches the leadership team how to use new software, but measures effective usage overall, it will likely look as if the software is ineffective. “Executive leadership teams get all this coaching, and they’re supposed to trickle it down to their employees, but it doesn’t work,” Williams says. “How could you, for the first time ever, [attend] a DEI training and be processing all of your own emotions and feelings and then be expected to go teach and model it to all of your employees right away?” Instead, he suggests, companies should choose “a few things that we’re really going to tackle as a company and everyone is learning it together—we’re all learning the tool.” For example, if the tool is a conversational technique, leaders and employees should learn together how to use it and practice it, rather than having one group practice the technique on another group.

Speed Up Practical Action

One common practice that doesn’t pay off, says Tygielski, is bringing in a keynote speaker to create excitement and rally employees at the start of a DEI initiative. Although it can feel like a high point, the momentum easily fizzles out. It’s much more important to aim for a common end, she says, to ensure “We’re all crossing the finish line together. This is something that is not just celebratory, but reflective, so we can say, ‘Hey, this is the feedback you gave us along the way. This is what we heard from you. This is what worked. This is the criticism we received.’”

It’s crucial to move quickly to create a critical mass of participants, and Tygielski recommends training people in their natural work teams or in teams that work together frequently. “The people who interact the most on a daily basis all get the download at the same time,” she explains, “so they’re modeling that behavior as the other pieces of the organization are being brought up to speed.”

Acknowledge The Reality Of Racism

Part of what has undercut the value of DEI work, says Williams, is that “People were used to this energy of diversity, equity and inclusion work that was constantly fighting something.” He explains that when you’re fighting all the time, “you’re bound to get exhausted,” and challenges organizations to invest more energy and time determining what people will want when the things they’ve been fighting against are gone. “We’re asking people to imagine a future without racism,” which, he says, “is a very different approach from saying, ‘Let’s make racism better,’ because what the hell is better racism? What does that actually mean?”

Williams encourages business leaders to invite employees to “start in a different place—a place where we say, ‘Who do you want to become if you could wake up in the morning and tell us, ‘I love working here—this is the most incredible place for me to work, where I feel like I can show up’?” If companies ask people what their ideal environment would look like, he says, it creates a more generative kind of conversation in which it’s possible to make “an impact versus continuously fighting against this thing that is just going to be fighting back forever. Being anti is giving us no information about what we’re for. What are we for? What do we want?”

Create Comfortable Opportunities For Connection

Corporations often don’t take into account the fact there are different kinds of people, adds Williams. “Everybody isn’t seeking the same kind of connection,” so it’s not enough merely to sponsor activities like employee resource groups (ERGs). Some people want deep friendships with their colleagues in and out of the workplace, while others want to be friendly or simply “keep things professional.” When ERGs or identity-based activities don’t account for these preferences, employees can feel pressured to participate, Williams points out, pushing them to react “in a way that is either inauthentic or feels forced or disingenuous to who they are as a person.”

Emphasize “Calling Forward”

Efforts to diversify organizations and create more equity frequently engender resistance and defensiveness, so compassionate approaches are critical. “No matter how much you’ve trained yourself on having difficult conversations, no matter how ready you feel you are to take feedback, if you are approached with shame, blame or guilt, it shuts down the centers of the brain that allow you to learn, listen and grow,” Williams explains. “Teaching all of us how to have these conversations in more skillful ways to call people forward instead of out is one of the most important skills we can share with people.” This is because “even when you are in the face of something that is really challenging to you in different kinds of dynamics and power structures, the question still is, ‘How [am I] going to show up in that environment? Can I still show up with love? Can I still show up with respect, having conversations in a way that is generative?’”

Onward and upward—

Leave a Reply