3 Steps to Start Your DEI Initiative
How to make sure you come correct in your DEI Strategy.
“Where do we start? ” This is one of the most common questions I get from companies.
When we talk about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), it becomes this huge, scary, thing to shove down our employees’ throats.
And it turns people off. Employees want to come to work, do their jobs, get their paycheck, and bounce.
Now, of course, not every employee feels that way. Many employees just don’t know how to start their DEI efforts. When I asked my audience of over fifty thousand people what they find challenging about DEI, the number one answer is: I am afraid of making a mistake or saying the wrong thing.
Cancel culture has scared the shit out of people. Why? Because one wrong statement can cost you your livelihood, and even the best-intentioned have messed up.
And in the true fashion of the BS expert that I am, I have to call bullshit on cancel culture.
Like for real. It’s bullshit.
And it isn’t helping. It’s punitive, and I get why that feels good, but it leaves no space for learning. And without learning there can be no progress. Period.
We have to stop looking at DEI as a destination and acknowledge it for what it is: a skill.
Inclusion and belonging happen when you build DEI skills. These skills include things like listening without judgment, questioning what you think you know, compassion, and many others.
If you practice these skills enough, inclusion and belonging will start to become automatic.
How does inclusion become “automatic”?
Think back to when you learned something new. It can be anything basketball, chess, or singing. You pick. It was really hard at first, right? But you practiced again and again, and now you don’t even have to think about what you’re doing. Now, when you do your thing, it feels easy—almost automatic.
Inclusion and belonging work the same way. So when you practice DEI skills, and you practice them enough, they become automatic.
How is this possible?
Well, the thing about the brain is that it’s got a lot to do, and it works really hard. When the brain has a task that it has to do frequently (thinking, walking, talking, writing), it goes on autopilot to save time and energy. This is why things that felt hard when you were young now feel easy— so easy, in fact, that we don’t even think about them as being skills.
The same thing can happen with DEI. When you practice things like considering others or making sure everyone is heard, your brain creates shortcuts for these skills, making it easier and easier each time you do it. But, there is also a flip side to the brain creating shortcuts through habits. Often times our brains have created unhelpful thinking habits that cause us to prejudge others without being aware of it. This is called unconscious bias, and it must be counteracted by building DEI skills.
It is these skills that enable you to respond to diverse colleagues with openness, consideration, and curiosity. And it is these responses that lead to more cohesive and productive work teams.
So, your only objective is to figure out how to make your DEI skills automatic.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Never assume, always ask.
To start building DEI into your organization, you’ll first want to know what areas your organization falls short, and you learn that by talking to employees. Why? Because the employees are the people you’re doing this for anyway! It’s about them! The biggest mistake I see companies make when starting their DEI journey is that they leave out the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the people they are trying to reach. When you leave out the people, you waste your time and efforts making assumptions. You might think that racism is the most pressing issue but learn from employees that ageism is just as prevalent. When you include employees in your DEI strategy, it feels less like you are forcing them, and more like you are concerned about their experiences.
2. Practice with people who are different than you, but that you know well.
Take a moment to think about the last time you learned a new skill—may be speaking a new language, playing an instrument, or perfecting a craft. How long did it take you? Probably awhile. Building new skills take time. But you can make the process go faster by practicing the right skills in the right way. More specifically, you can practice the skills that have the biggest impact on your colleagues, and practice them with people you have an authentic relationship with. This way you’ll make more progress in less time and you’ll be less likely to get canceled along the way.
The next time you’re with friends, and they say something out of line about a diverse group, ask them to explain what they mean by their statements. Alternatively, if you want to build your skills communicating with diverse people, start with someone that knows you well, and be honest about your intention to grow in areas where you need to. If you’re at a loss for a diverse friend, then you know you have work to do. And by work, I mean listening and learning. Social media allows you to learn about others just by observing. You don’t have to be an expert and you don’t have to jump into any conversations quickly. You can just simply observe interactions, thoughts, and feelings with the commitment to keeping an open mind.
During my time working with companies, I am always excited to see just how quickly people make significant progress building their DEI skills. But I am aware of how exhausting DEI can be. Trust me. It’s a 24/7 job for me.
Why is it exhausting? Because it’s always evolving. There is always some new identity to learn whether it be proper pronouns or romantic preference. Did you know that you can be bisexual and hetero-romantic? If not, then you get my point. Sometimes it is just like, WHY DOES EVERYTHING HAVE TO BE A THING.
After you prioritize DEI skills and practice them for a while, you’ll plateau and may even start to backslide towards where you started–assumptions. So keep in mind that there is always something new to learn, be compassionate with yourself, and give grace to others who are learning.
To progress and improve, we have to keep in mind that DEI is a skill, and therefore requires continued education hours. So, when you are feeling confident with a DEI skill, or feel like you have got everything figured out, it’s time to pause, see what else you need to learn and challenge yourself to do so.