As promised, I will be releasing a monthly article to support and encourage my DEI champions in the field. This work is often lonely and emotionally taxing. Meet me here once a month to recharge and regroup.
In just a few short days many of us will be engaged in celebrations or service projects to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To that end, I can think of no better purpose for our January article than to convey one of the many DEI strategies that I have learned from Dr. King’s life work. It was hard to choose just one because Dr. King’s life stands a living testimony to a number of truths, some of which are heavy and jagged pills to swallow. For example 1. What is right and what is popular are often not the same; 2. Creating allies will always be a critical element of affecting change; and rather ominously 3. No matter how peaceful your methodology, pushing for the type of change that threatens someone else’s position of privilege is dangerous work. That last truth is one that we all already know and have seen play out in myriad ways across the globe. And many of us fret over this fact while planning programming or crafting strategies for change. It is the sobering note that remains at a hum beneath all of the excitement and hope. We think to ourselves – I know that this is the right thing to do and that in the end, it will benefit everyone. But it is also going to trigger a negative response from some and may create enemies of people that I would prefer to be my allies. But then we rework the strategy as much as possible and dive in any way because that’s the work. #courage #neverthelessshepersisted
But that is not the lesson that I want to focus on today. No, today I want to focus on the bright silver lining that surrounds that heavy cloud. The lesson I want you to grab is that
"Visible and vocal opposition is a necessary and often helpful part of the work that we should embrace."
I would go as far as to say that without the high levels of vocal resistance we often encounter, the practice of DEI would not have evolved and grown in the way that it has over the last several years. In the same way that arguing points of law with opposing party attorneys made me a better lawyer, facing opposition to DEI initiatives makes me a better practicioner. Let me illustrate what I mean.
If I were creating a roadmap for positive change initiatives it would look like this:
Step one is the work we all know and do regularly. We discuss it and share best practices. It’s innovation work. Those at the DEI roundtable will brainstorm, analyze, innovate and arrive at a possible resolution that they want to roll out in the firm, organization, or community where they are tasked with increasing the D, E, or I in a measurable sustainable way.
But step two is where the rubber meets the road and where I am encouraging you to see the increased value. In this work or any work that represents a major shift in process, there will be passive resistance all along the way. People are generally uncomfortable with change. But the people who push back loudly and vehemently against change at this stage are a treasure trove of information that we sometimes miss out on. In these conversations we learn the depth of another's perspective, we question our own strategy, and rethink each step of it from another perspective to ensure that the space between intent and impact hasn't gotten away from us.
"...the people who push back loudly and vehemently against change at this stage are a treasure trove of information that we sometimes miss out on."
If you examine the life and work of Dr. King, you will very quickly see that the pattern of acceleration in the momentum of the civil rights movement is very closely correlated with the highly visible backlash against his message and work. This was not a surprise to Dr. King and it should not come as a surprise to you. This was anticipated and intentionally leveraged. The cycle of backlash and change momentum happens for at least two reasons.
The first is that those people that are still unconvinced that a problem even exists often are persuaded and moved to an ally position by how loud and abrasive the opposition is. (See the fire hoses and police dogs attacking peaceful protesters crossing the Selma Bridge. Also, see the Summer of George Floyd).
But the second benefit of open resistance is INFORMATION. You will never have a greater opportunity to learn more about what people value and what their greatest fears are than when they are trying to stop something from changing. Lean into this with sincere curiosity. You may think you can sum a group of resisters up as enemies of progress; but if you can get into a private conversation with any of these individuals you will see, hidden beneath the bluster and cynicism, the soft underbelly of anger and resistance is almost always fear. Don’t miss the opportunity to catalog these fears, assuage them where possible, and clarify the purpose and intention of the initiative you are rolling out. Here are some of the most common fears I hear arounf DEI initiatives:
These programs are trying to push all of the white males out of leadership
Office camaraderie is going to disappear because we will all be walking on eggshells trying to never say anything accidentally offensive
Once we start training on microaggressions everyone is going to start filing complaints and trying to sue us
There is no place for me in this work. I will become the outsider.
We are going to lose some of our top producers because they don’t care about this stuff
Some of our clients/patients/members are more comfortable with (insert a demographic here). We may lose them if we diversify the team that works with them.
If you are reading these you should see the fear of becoming obsolete, fear of being alienated, fear of losing business/profitability, fear of increased economic risk, or losing an advantageous comfort level. This is textbook fear of change. We encounter it in our own lives over and over again and we don’t consider ourselves monsters for our own hesitancy. Instead, we try to figure out how to overcome those fears so that we can get where we want to be. And when all else fails, we just push through and do it afraid. I encourage you to apply that same energy to your DEI work. Fear has to be understood and addressed with care, otherwise, it leaves us vulnerable to having those fears exploited by unscrupulous actors. Register resistance as fear and figure out how to alleviate the fear factor so that the company can continue to move forward to where it needs to be. And when all else fails, garner the support you need, acknowledge the calculated risk, and move forward anyway.
Check back with us next month as we provide some best practice ways to address the common fears set out above and dive into the next stop on the positive change roadmap.