Why diversity initiatives fail: the two biggest mistakes everyone is making.

Companies have been investing in diversity initiatives for decades with the belief that over time, their company will be an equal opportunity environment in the spirit of the idea, and not just the letter of the law. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. In most companies, DEI&B (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging) is still more about compliance with hiring metrics than about creating a sense of belonging for all employees.

Nearly all company cultures have historically excluded certain types of people because exclusivity was the system that the professional world was built upon. Creating a truly inclusive culture now requires a systemic transformation. That doesn’t mean that your company culture has to become something vastly different or foreign to your employees. You can preserve your unique company culture while simultaneously creating systemic change for DEI&B.

Almost any culture can be systemically modified to be inclusive of all races, religions, and genders. To effect a systemic change DEI&B must be treated as a lens through which all decisions are made, and not treated as a set of tasks or metrics to achieve.

Here are the two ways that companies routinely get DEI&B wrong and both of them stem from the failure of leaders to see DEI&B as a systemic change.

Mistake #1: If DEI&B is an HR initiative, it will fail to bring systemic change to the company.

Although the Human Resources department is a great steward of policies, it can’t drive systemic change. Employees in HR both create and reference company policies on a regular basis to standardize company practices around hiring, benefits, fair-treatment, and discipline. However, systemic change is simply not within the allotted powers given to HR.

The HR department is a staff function, not a line function. A staff function is one that supports and advises the organization while a line function advances a company in its primary work. It’s impossible for a department with a staff function to create a systemic change in an organization. Systemic transformation must be driven from the inside and it must be led from the top.

To fix this mistake, the CEO and Senior Leadership must personally endorse DEI&B by doing extensive learning on the topics of belonging and systemic racism. Until the Senior Leaders in the line function departments are personally invested in DEI&B, it will never take hold as a systemic change.

Mistake #2: If DEI&B is treated as a set of executable goals, it will fail to bring systemic change to the company.

Successful DEI&B isn’t a set of executable goals or tasks, it’s a lens through which the company makes all decisions. To install that lens in the company, you have to temporarily let go of hiring and training goals and focus on influential leadership as the primary tool critical to your success. Systemic change is the term we use when hundreds or thousands of people all change their mind from an old worldview to a new perspective. The way that happens is called influence.

It’s easy for employees to complete tasks like attending sensitivity training sessions or hiring people of color without addressing their own biases. When DEI&B is treated as executable goals, the demographics of the company may change, but the people of color will be hired into an environment where they don’t feel a sense of belonging. It’s nearly impossible for a person to excel in their career when they don’t feel like they belong in their own company. Achievement and ambition languish in employees who don’t feel socially and emotionally included in the community.

Instead of treating DEI&B as executable goals and metrics, treat it like the social movement that it is. Social movements don’t create systemic change by decree. Rules and metrics don’t change minds. Influential role models change minds. Successful DEI&B starts with one leader who personally begins making all decisions through the lens of DEI&B and who actively seeks to influence other leaders to do the same.

Executives must each engage in a personal journey alone and together to become fluent about why DEI&B matters to them, to the company, and to the world. Without this personal and emotional investment by leaders, especially those in line functions, the company will find itself simply checking boxes and meeting metrics without creating systemic change.

Author: Nicole Gravagna, PhD, NeuroEQ