A Leadership Approach to Diversity

Image represents diversity, inclusion and equity.

If you’re like me, you’ve attended more diversity trainings than you can count. While I appreciate the objective behind them, such programs are lazy attempts at solving a complex societal issue. They are a management tool rather than a leadership strategy to diversity. As a result, they fail to create a positive and inclusive culture. In fact, thousands of studies demonstrate that people retain almost nothing from diversity trainings. Any knowledge gained is generally forgotten a few days later. 

Programming committed to increasing understanding of diversity issues makes the mistake of assuming that knowledge equals results. Knowledge is important; but useless if not acted upon. For instance, although I know that you are supposed to have a routine bedtime with no distractions to get restful sleep; night after night, I go to bed with my laptop, television on, lights blaring, and can’t figure out why I’m tired all the time. Years of developing poor habits won’t be undone with knowledge alone; rather it must be coupled with action. The same is true for diversity trainings. Organizations gather employees, offer a one-day annual training, and assume a few hours of data will transform perceptions. Yet, their cultures are infiltrated with unconscious bias and their structures have dictated a lack of commitment to diversity from the top down. 

Time for a Leadership Approach to Diversity

Aside from shifts in big data, the same approach to diversity has been implemented for more than a half century. Rather than leading an inclusive culture, control tactics are used to manage diversity in an effort to preempt legal action. As a result, bias weaves its roots deeper and diversity becomes nothing more than a buzz word that is resented by those forced to participate.

Statistic graphic on the importance of diversity and an inclusive and positive culture in job searches.

Organizations that are truly interested in creating a dynamic and positive culture that celebrates diversity need to dismantle management thinking and embrace a leadership model. Whereas management is grounded in ideas that seek to control and maintain, leadership is committed to vision, breaking molds, and inspiring change. A leadership approach creates an innovative path that is focused on uprooting biases and celebrating diversity. Instead of the annual training here are five strategies to implement a more positive and inclusive culture where everyone feels welcomed and valued.

Leadership Strategies for an Inclusive Culture

  1. Focus on flexibility: Diversity trainings attempt to create a “one size fits all” curriculum. However, individuals have different lived experiences and as a result, different needs. Thus, programs should be flexible in content, structure, and delivery.

  2. Welcome all employees to foster dialogue: Rather than limiting diversity trainings to management teams or developing programs that are envisioned by select personnel; welcome voices from across the organization to engage the process. This will ensure that diverse thinking representative of various needs are considered and will result in a more effective program.

  3. Engage language beyond diversity: While most comprehend the meaning of diversity, there are many complex ideas that need to be incorporated into discussions. Intersectionality is a critical concept to understand in diversity efforts and explains the phenomena that different identities intersect to create a particular experience of discrimination and injustice. For instance, while we are often quick to cite the statistic of women earning $.77 on dollar to men; this statistic refers to the earnings of white women in relation to white men. African American women earn only $.64 on the dollar to white men, and Latina women earn only $.56 on the dollar – and by the way, these numbers are dropping quickly amidst the pandemic. These statistics also do not take into consideration the earnings of men of color. 

    While we often focus on diversity as relating to gender, or race, or sexuality, or age, or culture, or religion, etc., in fact, many have intersecting identities across groups that routinely experience discrimination and this drastically effects its level and intensity.
  4. Integrate intervention: Rather than only focusing on reducing bias in individuals, integrate intervention training that encourages participants to recognize their roles in promoting diversity in the organization. Offer training that prepares persons to intervene when bias and discrimination are witnessed and create opportunities for employees to share ideas about organizational diversity. This encourages social accountability and allows employees to feel invested in the success of diversity efforts. 

  5. Continue the conversation: Conversations about diversity often end after the annual diversity training. Keeping diversity in the forefront and incorporating diversity initiatives into the organizational culture encourages participation in these efforts. This means moving beyond trainings and education efforts and creating opportunities for employees – regardless of rank — to engage across teams and learn from their colleagues outside of their own departments and beyond their own circles. This creates access to diverse perspectives while encouraging knowledge about the organization and often results in a greater commitment to its mission. 

Leadership Supports Diversity

While we recognize the critical nature of leadership for the success of our organizations, we need to acknowledge that vision, innovation, and inspiring change is also necessary to transform the ways we are engaging diversity. Shifting to a leadership model will result in a positive culture that celebrates – and benefits from – the multifaceted identities, talents, and creativity of all employees. 

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