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Do you need a DEI power nap?

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Recent news coverage from across the pond pointed to the departure or redundancy of top Diversity and Inclusion hires, reflecting a scaling back of commitments and growing disillusionment. With other growing challenges at play, including geopolitical risk, macro concerns and affirmative action facing elimination in U.S. universities, it continues to be an exhausting and discomforting time for employees globally. Particularly those from underrepresented groups. In the words of Harvard Professor of Leadership, Amy Edmondson, “fear is the enemy of flourishing”.

Corine Sheratee from Personnel Today, notes that diversity fatigue can set in not only from efforts to train and retain diverse talents, but also when Inclusion and Diversity initiatives fail to translate into visible and tangible change. When progress feels slow, and scepticism grows, feelings of burnout compound. Her solution is two-fold. Firstly, shifting away from a focus on unconscious bias training, and instead developing Cultural Intelligence (CQ), since culturally intelligent people are more likely to act inclusively and foster a psychologically safer working environment where employees can show up authentically; and lastly, not only setting realistic diversity targets, but also communicating them clearly.

Don't Let Happy Talk Fatigue You

Happy talk plays an important role here. This phenomenon is where people accentuate positive information, and omit anything negative. A recent study from the Academy of Management suggests that leaders tend to use ‘value-in-diversity rhetoric’ (promoting the idea that diversity in organisations is inherently beneficial) more often than ‘contingent-diversity rhetoric’ (which emphasizes that diversity is beneficial when its challenges are overcome) because they may fear appearing prejudiced. However, the study proposes that contingent-diversity rhetoric is “prescriptively” more effective in motivating employees to put effort into diversity goals. This is because it makes employees perceive diversity goals as challenging and, therefore, worth striving for. Ultimately, Leaders can increase employees’ diversity efforts by being more open and realistic about the way they share their challenges.

Ella F. Washington’s work highlights that this work is about being in it for the long haul. A third of all companies are stuck at the ‘Compliant’ stage of their DEI Maturity with another 3 stages to follow (Tactical, Integrated and Sustainable). Most companies still have a way to go and their intentions risk ‘fizzling out' without the appropriate buy-in and guidance. Heads of I&D, L&D or HR cannot drive change in isolation. There is a collective responsibility to reflect on and activate any DEI initiatives or learnings. Without inclusion, we cannot have the conversations that are necessary to access diversity in all its facets. A concept which is a central tenet in building Fearless organisations.

The Bigger Picture

LinkedIn shares that the top three fastest growing DEI roles in EMEA are Director of Diversity, Diversity Officer, and Head of Diversity. Strikingly, 77% of all new DEI roles are either senior or director positions with 22.8% of these roles in leadership positions (Manager, Director, VP or CXO). And only one in five are entry level. In Ireland alone new Heads of DEI jobs are being posted weekly; while some of these roles may suggest churn, some may also reflect the wider efforts to make workplaces more inclusive such as the passing of the new Work Life Balance Bill (including the right to request remote and flexible working and the right for transgender men who have given birth to access maternity leave).

This data perhaps suggests that EMEA region organisations are increasingly investing in DEI efforts by creating high-level positions, recognising the need for experienced leaders to drive these initiatives effectively. However, the situation in the US serves as a prompt that we should not be complacent about potentially waning efforts. With increasing division and challenges globally, it is important to acknowledge that this work requires sustained energy, collaboration and openness, which is why it is vital to take time for reflection before the urge to quit sets in. In the same way that a power nap can positively impact your physiology, perhaps taking five regularly to reflect on how we and our organisations are talking about DEI both internally and externally, will also help to hold safe space for those conversations.

Take Forty Winks

Any journey toward fostering more reflective, inclusive and diverse organisations is, to quote an old adage, more of a marathon than a sprint. Just as taking forty winks can refresh and recharge, regular moments of reflection and dialogue about the DEI vision and how it is being communicated may help to reboot or sustain initiatives. To revisit Amy Edmondson’s wisdom, a commitment to building lasting change, one safe conversation at a time, is what it takes to truly innovate and thrive.

What you can do to curb the fatigue

  • Find ways to recharge, set boundaries and take actual naps. Stepping up action or change for the long haul starts with your personal self-care.

  • Seek inspiration. The Inner Development Framework reminds us that perseverance, courage, openness and a learning mindset are amongst key qualities to help us navigate deep psychological and cultural change. Project Inside Out contains some excellent guiding principles and ideas for changemakers.

  • Revisit or start conversations about your company’s collective internal vision and current rhetoric. It might be a good time to refresh DEI statements and commitments (most likely unrevised since the aftermath of George Floyd in 2020). Practice humble inquiry and perhaps consider doing a listening series to hear from people on the ground. Ella F. Washington has some excellent reflective questions you can explore.

  • Help to foster psychologically safe environments by ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak up. Consider holding regular Lean Coffee meetings, where you can ask questions from a place of honesty without a fear of being shut down. Rotate the chair, time box and wrap up. Tom Geraghty’s excellent newsletter (no. 93) discusses the benefits. Agatha Agbanobi and T. Viva Asmelash advocate for building psychological safety for all through the lens of identity. They recommend levelling up coaching, 360 feedback, and performance management practices to surface potential biases.

  • When we are unafraid, we can be more creative. Read Amy Edmondson’s new book for insights into Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive

Co-authored by Laura Stearn and Christina Clark

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