Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – For executives, success boils down to three pillars: making money, saving money and reducing risk. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are not on that list. Yet, here’s what I’m telling colleagues and potential C-suite clients: Organizations that are ready to win in the marketplace are implementing DEI practices because they understand that building culture-centric companies has both immediate and long-term value. 

Culture is at the core of success, because your stakeholders are demanding it. You may be hearing this as a murmur right now, but the roar is on the horizon. Great leadership – leading from the front – means using inclusive language, understanding bias and giving better feedback. The results are dramatic, including happier employees and more effective teams. 

Yet, many conversations about DEI center on changing hearts and minds, instead of where they should be focused: how culture initiatives save the company money or protect it from lawsuits. Sure, it would be nice if every organization adopted a diversity lens because it’s the right thing to do, but a philosophical discussion isn’t required to see tangible bottom-line results. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson


What I’m about to tell you next might seem controversial, but bear with me. If you’re a leader who recoils when you hear the word “diversity,” or you’re tired of feeling guilty or attacked because you’re White, you don’t even have to mention “diversity,” “DEI,” “DEIB,” or any of the other words that trigger negativity in some people’s minds. 

How can I say this? Well, part of my task as a C-suite leader and diversity champion is to change the world for the better. However, I’m not naive enough to think we’re all rowing in the same direction at the same time. My optimistic outlook is that making progress is positive, and I am the last person who is going to pretend otherwise. 

Workforce Development, Leadership Enrichment, Team Training – use whatever label you want. The broader point is that training centered on inclusive language, reducing or eliminating implicit bias, and creating trusting teams that have strong feedback can transform an organization’s workplace culture. 

Don’t run from culture transformation because you’re scared off by the word diversity. Instead, consider these four alternatives:


Here’s how inclusive language can have an immediate impact on a business. Maybe there’s a team member whose pronouns are “they” and “them.” Their supervisor might think, “I don’t get this pronoun business. Besides, it’s only one person. What does it matter?” But every time that manager uses the wrong pronoun, they demonstrate that they don’t respect the employee or care about their identity. 

The employee might feel targeted, like no one cares, or that the work environment is toxic. That person might feel that they were denied a promotion or professional advancement because of their identity. They could quit, file a lawsuit or lodge a discrimination complaint – all potentially costing the company money and time, as well as reputational damage. If the organization doesn’t have any inclusive language training or other DEI programming in place, the treatment of that one employee could be seen as a systemic problem within the entire company. 

When business leaders don’t care about things like inclusive language, they open themselves up to bad financial outcomes and potential crises. Whether they actually believe in diversity or not, leaders should care how it affects workplace culture. When executives, boards and people leaders champion inclusive language, they also set a standard of acceptable behavior throughout the organization.

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How do we overcome challenges inherent in culture? The answer is through education. Therefore, it is vital that all employees understand bias and how it shapes opinions and decisions, not just C-suite leaders and managers. By definition, everyone carries implicit biases; it’s just how our brains work. A just and equitable workplace, however, hinges on learning how to overcome these challenges.

The key to counteracting bias is not to attempt to change deep-seated attitudes, but instead to create processes to lessen their impact. For example, standardized interview questions and anonymous resume reviews can shift the focus of a job interview to the candidate’s performance, not on what they have in common with the interviewer.


Whether a senior leader, mid-level manager or front-line employee, knowing how to give and receive feedback is a critical business skill. Whether they are leading a team or not, anyone working with another person needs to be able to set expectations, give clear directions, and follow up in a kind and direct manner. 

Too often, feedback is withheld because people don’t want to offend another person, and bad situations are allowed to continue. But if feedback is focused on specific actions and outcomes – both good and bad – people feel valued and encouraged to keep learning and growing.


When a company makes DEI concepts part of its core onboarding process or mandates annual refresher training, it is taking a stance. In effect, the organization is saying that it is important that staff treat each other with respect, refuse to tolerate discriminatory behavior and support an environment where everyone can do their best work.  

While it’s true that mandatory DEI training is less effective than voluntary training, it beats no training at all. In fact, not all DEI training should be mandatory. For example, not every employee needs to know about supplier diversity. However, inclusive language, bias awareness and effective feedback are important concepts that set a behavioral baseline for workplace conduct. Just like sexual harassment awareness and anti-discrimination policies, every employee should learn and follow the guidelines established by the leadership team and integrated companywide.  


Leaders want to be great. Otherwise, why not do something else? 

What I’m telling you isn’t a fad or some gimmick. It’s not even about “diversity.” We can go back to the earliest origins of management and leadership training and see culture as a driving force in success and a determiner of potential downfall. 

Call your culture initiatives by some other name or invent one, just don’t think that you can run from the hard work. Using inclusive language, understanding unconscious bias and learning how to give clear, direct feedback are foundational concepts of leadership, not just culture change or diversity programming. These are also core behaviors for culture-centric organizations, companies that can succeed today and grow in the future. 


Before you go, download The Inclusive Language Handbook by Jackie Ferguson, a guidebook that walks you through culture change via your most important resource: strong communication both on internal teams and with customers and clients.

Language really is the place to begin your transformation into a culture-centric organization ready to achieve workplace excellence. I have yet to have anyone tell me, “Nah, Donald, this inclusive language stuff really didn’t work for me.” I’m willing to bet you will find the same value that thousands of others have. You have nothing to lose, and a revitalized company culture to gain 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement and author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. As an executive coach and board member, he focuses on goal achievement, building culture-centric leaders and organizations and driving exponential growth. Donald hosts the “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” podcast and is an award-winning entrepreneur, keynote speaker and Certified Diversity Executive (CDE). Connect with or follow Donald on Linkedin to learn more.