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 TIANGLE PARK – C-Suite leaders are valued for finding answers to difficult questions. I’m going to ask several easy ones:
- Do you think your employee who uses a wheelchair should have access to your office?
- Should all of your employees be paid the same if they are in the same roles and do the same work, regardless of their gender?
- Do you want all your employees to feel physically and emotionally safe at work?
When I describe these common diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to senior executives, even the DEI skeptics I encounter immediately see the value of diversity programs.
Organizations are comprised of people who want to help others, while also achieving their own goals and aspirations. So, ensuring a person who uses a wheelchair has access to a ramp not only makes sense and is in line with workplace laws, but also is the right thing to do for another human being.
As a leader, doing the right thing is an easy win for you and the organization. But, it is easy to get distracted by the challenges that arise in a tough economy and a culture so focused on fear and divisiveness.
HYPE VERSUS REALITY
I have a few words of advice to help us all cut through the incessant political posturing going on right now: Don’t get caught up in the rhetoric.
The words politicians and some media pundits are using have been explicitly crafted to make people hate those who don’t share their viewpoints. They are sowing discord at your expense, because there is money to be made when people adopt an “us versus them” mindset. We see the outcome daily on social media, particularly in the vicious arguments that push hate and disruption. All these competing agendas have one overt goal in mind: to increase your anger in order to keep you tuned in or logged on.
As a result, of course, diversity, equity and inclusion were going to be politicized. The chatter is currently at a loud roar because it makes headlines: “DEI fatigue,” accusations that DEI is a “virus” or “scam,” everything labeled “woke” and many, many additional scare tactics designed to disseminate doubt and divisiveness. Despite the snazzy soundbites, the continued fracturing of society is not providing any value for people as they live their daily lives – doing their jobs, caring for friends and family and attempting to live their dreams.
As a business leader, if you let political rhetoric dictate or hijack workplace culture, then realize this is a deliberate choice. For a deeper examination of the causes of DEI resistance, take a look at the recent Harvard Business Review article by Eric Shuman, Eric Knowles and Amit Goldenberg that outlines the psychological reasons why leaders and employees resist diversity and DEI conceptually. For them, the emphasis is not centered on just the political arena. “At many organizations,” their research revealed, “there’s also significant internal resistance to DEI initiatives that leaders need to overcome.”
While there are a handful of fear-based and avoidance-related psychological reasons for DEI resistance, the authors urge readers to look at the universal value (just as I recommended with those initial questions). “It’s important to draw attention to the ‘win-win’ aspects of DEI initiatives,” they explain. “Particularly how increased diversity can drive long-term growth in the business and increase opportunities for everyone.”
DEI IS BUSINESS-LED, NOT SOCIAL JUSTICE-LED
As a C-Suite leader, you have significant power to transform workplace culture. An important step is to counter the “woke” narrative by emphasizing the business-focused case for culture change through a diversity lens – stronger teams that will create a better organization. Your stakeholders are not going to understand this idea without your help, because the DEI naysayers are getting so much airplay. People might be awash in negativity from the media and social media, but organizations and their leaders can still win with the truth.
The really bothersome aspect of DEI critics’ blather against “woke” ideas is that it is so short-sighted. You don’t have to be a sociologist or mathematician to understand the cultural transformation on the horizon. Diversity is happening whether organizations and leaders embrace it or not. Look at the changing demographics or – better yet – spend some time talking with young professionals.
The cultural transformation is coming – it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Even if you don’t see it immediately, the change is coming. Now is the time to figure out what you’re going to do about it in the short- and long-term. Do you want to embrace culture change now and establish a foundation for future success, or accept the risk inherent in doing nothing?
C-Suite executives are data-driven, so trust the data. Operationalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion means equipping every employee and leader with the tools they need to create a positive, productive and outcome-driven workplace. Live your values to create better teams of employees that work well together and strive to solve the complex business challenges you face together.
Your legacy is on the line and the decisions you make today will ripple through the organization and your communities for years to come.
Here’s another straightforward question:
– Do you want to be the leader who is remembered for wrecking their organization?
About the Author
Donald Thompson founded The Diversity Movement to literally change the world. As CEO, he has guided its work with hundreds of clients and through hundreds of thousands of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, he is the author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events, and his podcast, or contact him at email@example.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content.