It’s safe to say that most leaders have great intentions around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But if they think it’s enough to hire a consultant to come in, pinpoint problems, and make an inclusive company happen, they won’t be successful. Amri B. Johnson says it’s the people who make the DEI “party” happen, not the host.
“There’s a lot of legwork and preparation that must be done before a company is ready to bring in a DEI specialist,” says Johnson, author of the upcoming book Reconstructing Inclusion: Making DEI Accessible, Actionable, and Sustainable (Matt Holt, December 2022, ISBN: 978-1-6377418-8-7, $27.00). “Initiatives aren’t likely to ‘stick’ until everyone in the organization is fully committed, invested, and in the right head space.”
Johnson has his own twist on a popular “party” analogy cited in DEI circles.
“You know how people say that diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is when you’re asked to dance?” he says. “Well, a DEI consultant is just the host of the party. We can hire the DJ and the caterers and invite people to come, but what makes the party is the participants—whether they show up, engage, bring snacks and drinks, and interact with each other with sincerity and in the right spirit.”
In other words, if your organization just “copies and pastes” a program on your existing operations, any gains will be minimal or short-lived. It takes a lot of work to create an organization where inclusion is actionable, accessible, sustainable, and contributes to the larger mission—and experts can’t do the work for you. Here are a few tips for bridging the DEI readiness gap and pulling together a successful “party”:
Executives, set the right tone for the party ahead of time. Employees are watching and taking cues from C-suite executives along with management and other leaders within the organization. Your actions inform the behavior of everyone else. So, be the first to embrace the spirit of inclusion so you can be a powerful example for others. For example, ensure that you are unambiguously committed to designing hiring and promoting practices that are inclusion-friendly: Are you casting a wide net in search of diverse candidates? Do you (consciously or unconsciously) anchor on convenient and traditional ways of finding great people, or do you consider that you may have blind spots that have you look for sameness? Do you judge people only for their work performance, or do you let your personal preferences sway your perceptions?
Survey and be in dialogue with your employees for an accurate representation of your culture. Gathering data from your workers can give you a surprising amount of information. You might think people are happy and fulfilled, but asking the right questions can reveal problems creating tension and strife. Be sure to ask your employees to share what could be improved—and with an open mind.
Focus on what unites you, not what divides you. Johnson believes in a shared-humanity approach to inclusion. A focus on single-identity groups perpetuates the very same othering cycle that has long excluded some people from the workplace culture. “If there’s one thing the future fit organization needs to remember, it’s that we can all have our affinities and choose humanity,” notes Johnson. “They’re not in conflict or competition. Any tension that might arise is an opportunity to grow and create something extraordinary together.”
Look for (and celebrate) your “bright spots.” You might already be doing some things well, and you can use them as a jumping-off point for continued improvement. “Be sure to amplify what you’re already getting right,” says Johnson. “Communicate the wins you notice with all team members and encourage them to speak up when they discover something to be proud of. This creates the kind of momentum that benefits everyone—not only will people start looking for successes, they will be the change they want to create.”
Educate everyone on the most common forms of bias. We all have unconscious preferences that can negatively impact our actions and behaviors. Organizations committed to inclusion must educate employees on bias and address ways to prevent bias from negatively impacting individuals or groups. “It begins with recognition and awareness,” says Johnson. “When we know that our implicit biases might be influencing our decisions and behaviors, we can become more aware of the assumptions or beliefs driving our actions and begin to question and build capabilities to challenge them.” One caveat to this is that limiting such education to a single training is incomplete and could actually be counterproductive. Create opportunities to bring awareness and then learn to apply approaches to mitigate the dysfunctional impacts of cognitive biases.
Make the space comfortable for each other. Employees at all levels can do the day-to-day work to make everyone feel safe and comfortable at work. (Keep in mind that if you’re in a position of power and/or privilege, you are better equipped to do this than others might be, so be bold and use your prestige to make a difference.) Some things you can do include speaking up if you see behavior that isn’t okay, sharing the praise with those who helped you reach a major goal, making room for other voices in meetings, being a mentor, recommending someone who might typically be overlooked for a leadership position within the team, etc.
Give whatever it is you have to give. Everyone has something to contribute to make inclusion normative at your workplace. Even if it’s just offering a kind word to someone who looks like they might feel uncomfortable. Or taking a curious approach when someone does or says something that feels challenging or difficult for you. Or being the first to apologize if you’ve innocently caused harm.
“You wouldn’t show up to a party empty-handed, and neither should you expect the work of DEI to be someone else’s responsibility,” concludes Johnson. “Step up and be part of the change. You’ll never regret making your place of work—where we spend a good amount of our lives—safe, welcoming, and inclusive for your colleagues and for yourself.”
Amri B. Johnson is the author of Reconstructing Inclusion: Making DEI Accessible, Actionable, and Sustainable. For more than 20 years, he has been instrumental in helping organizations and their people create extraordinary business outcomes. He is a social capitalist, epidemiologist, entrepreneur, and inclusion strategist. Amri’s dialogic approach to engaging all people as leaders and change agents has fostered the opening of minds and deepening of skillsets with organizational leaders and citizens, enabling them to thrive and optimally contribute to one another and their respective organizations.
As CEO/founder of Inclusion Wins, Amri and a virtual collective of partners converge organizational purpose to create global impact with a lens of inclusion. Born in Topeka, Kansas (USA), Amri has worked and lived in the US, Brazil, and currently lives in Basel, Switzerland, with his wife, Martina, and their three kids.