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The Key to Unlock Success in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives are more successful if participants are intercultural learners and have developed a personal curiosity and appreciation about those different from themselves.

Along-side leadership, team, quality and ethics, diversity is an often talked about in business. At the same time, it is also a controversial topic, often not understood and a topic that can unleash a wide variety of emotions.

Diversity thinking is rooted in western social justice approaches as well as legislation that came out of the civil rights movement. In recent years a lot of research and writing has focused on the business benefits of implementing diversity, equity and inclusion (in this article shortened to “DEI”) strategies.

Western designed DEI approaches have been exported to the rest of the world in a variety of ways. In many cases, the approaches were promoted as ‘universally applicable, best practices.’ This, in and of itself, is evidence that quite a few DEI initiatives were not designed with an Inter-Cultural Intelligence mindset. This makes the assumption that DEI initiatives can be designed in one part of the world and universally deployed. This way of thinking seems to forget that every DEI initiative will, in big or small ways, bring change into the cultural fabric of a society and therefore needs to be contextualized. Not just in terms of language and implementation, but also in terms of underlying assumptions and the actual design of the approach.

At the heart of DEI we look at people who have been excluded from certain roles and conversations and ask, “How can we make sure they have a voice and a platform?”

In Europe and North America, as well as places like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa this has led to a focus on pillars of diversity: protecting against unconscious bias and discrimination based on things like ethnicity, minority group status, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and military service.

This has a significant impact on legislation and political agendas around diversity & inclusion, with many related laws being introduced over the past 60 years. These laws have caused many organizations to take DEI serious. But for true progress to be made in DEI initiatives, we need a strategy that puts the (cultural) person at the center.

The Unintended Consequence of Legislation

The growth of DEI related legislation and a variety of political agendas has unfortunately given birth to a number of unintended consequences. One of our seasoned experts working in North America says: “It might be the right or fair thing to do, but it creates other problems if all parties impacted are not part of the journey of change and understand the ‘why’ of investing differently in people who are marginalized.”

Research by a variety of organizations has shown that integrating DEI strategies in recruiting and promoting will improve diversity in the workforce. At the same time, DEI sceptics have often mentioned that there is no direct business benefit. They also assert that many DEI initiatives don’t actually equip participants to meaningfully relate and work together with people from different backgrounds. This can result in participation that remains a sort of tokenism: externally complying with what is required, but internally seeing these things only as affirmative action imposed on them from the outside. This can create dangerous undercurrents and the wrong type of tribalism in organizations.

The difficulty with relying on legislation and policies to drive DEI is that they do not go deep enough. They do not actually help people with developing the competencies and skills needed to improve their ability to perceive the cultural world around them, adapt cultural habits, and create organizational cultures that embrace diversity.

Over the years, KnowledgeWorkx has partnered with local companies and large international organizations in 70 countries; in government, academia, NGOs, and the commercial sector. During that time, we have consistently found our best success in this area comes from starting at the personal cultural level, a cultural ‘in-side-out’ approach.

The biggest impact is made, not at the legal or policy level, but at the heart level! The most fundamental question that lies at the heart of succeeding or failing in any DEI initiative is this: “How do I, deep down inside, feel and think about ‘difference?’ And “How does that influence how I speak and act?”

This requires us to start focusing on approaches that might traditionally not have been part of DEI work. The more diverse an environment, the more challenging it becomes to answer this question: How do I engage with colleagues and with the fabric of our organization in such a way that all contributors feel they feel safe, belong and are thriving relationally as well as professionally?

A Different Approach

It is hard enough to try and answer that question when you are surrounded by people who are similar to you, but it gets infinitely more complex when diversity of all kinds starts to increase.

The other challenge is that we all have our own natural cultural inclination to deal with an organizational or relational challenge in a certain way. But if we are not interculturally agile ourselves, even with the best of intentions, we are likely to cause more challenges, not less.

Let me give you an example. In the last few years you might have heard the phrase: “Bring your whole self to work.” In and of itself a great concept. The intention behind that initiative was noble, the desire to give people an opportunity to be heard, seen, and accepted for everything they are should be applauded.

Unfortunately, the introduction of ‘bring your whole self to work’ unleashed some major challenges.

Let’s use our Three Colors of Worldview© to explain why it only works for people who have a certain cultural wiring.

‘Bring your whole self to work’ was created by people who are Innocence/Guilt (I/G) oriented on the Three Colors of Worldview grid. They also have a cultural wiring that believes in what we call ‘individual accountability’ (as opposed to ‘community accountability’). They believe it is important to treat everybody fairly and to create room for individual expression.

I/G oriented people will jump in and use the opportunity to ‘do what is right’, to express their individuality and likely they will experience feelings of fairness and even liberation.

If somebody is from a Power/Fear orientation they might respond in two ways. They will evaluate the ‘bring your whole self to work’ initiative using one central question in their head: “Will disclosing/expressing more of myself increase my power and influence or not?” If they feel more disclosure and expression will increase their power and influence, they will go for it. But if the opposite is true, they will shrink back and disclose/express less.