For years, researchers have coined terms that traditionally have hindered the success of diverse groups in corporate environments. Metaphors like “sticky floors” (e.g., gender stereotypes, social norms, and discrimination), “glass ceilings” (in the form of motherhood penalties), and glass cliffs (e.g. when women leaders are promoted in times of crisis and set up for failure) are used to explain why gender wage gaps occur for women.
Corporate organizations also label microaggressions as primary hindrances to their diversity progress. Microaggressions include any number of workplace occurrences that can’t be classified explicitly as policy violations, blatant acts of harassment, or workplace discrimination. Even so, they often result in hostile work environments, employee turnover, and workplace trauma for employees who choose to remain in the organization.
Introducing: the diversity superhero
When these challenges occur in the workplace, wouldn’t it be nice to call on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) superheroes? Imagine how they would charge into the workplace with massive capes and swords, ready to slay difficult workplace dragons.
Unfortunately, diversity work isn’t that easy. As a result, many employees attempt to be workplace diversity heroes when they aren’t ready to fulfill such duties. At least not yet.
This desire for many eager, yet unprepared people to become diversity heroes was heightened in 2020. A lot of people read a couple of books and attended a few trainings, and they thought they were ready to act. The reality, however, was that when many people put on those newly acquired diversity superhero capes, nothing happened. They didn’t have the power to do DEI work effectively.
Below are initial steps toward becoming an authentic DEI superhero.
Preparation is a key aspect of success in any area of life, including DEI work.
Overconfidence without listening to those most likely to benefit from your actions can be dangerous and can inhibit your ability to think, speak, or act effectively on behalf of diverse groups in your workplace. Leading and implementing diversity changes isn't for the faint of heart. These changes are often uncomfortable and can create tensions that the diversity superhero must be equipped to dispel.
Start by discerning what knowledge is required to address DEI issues. Preparation may come in several ways:
- Reading books - A list of fifteen workplace diversity books to get you started is located here;
- Purchasing digital guides tailored to an area of interest or need - Check out this dual kit I created for diverse employees and people who want to become diversity accomplices;
- Reading articles about specific diversity topics - I coauthored this piece about ways Black and White women can engage in coalition building;
- Completing training and certificates in diversity areas of need - The University of South Florida presents modules with a paid option to earn a Credly badge; and
- Learning directly from DEI experts for one-on-one or group consultations.
With this preparation comes humility. As you encounter DEI wins and losses, remain teachable in your diversity journey.
Learn How to Use Your Tools
Every diversity superhero has tools and strategies aligned with their strengths. Understanding the functionality and limitation of one’s tools increases the likelihood of positive DEI outcomes.
Most organizations provide employees with assessments such as the CliftonStrengths assessment to identify the best ways for employees to lead, manage, and operate daily in their workplace. Build your DEI muscles by complementing your known strengths with newly acquired DEI knowledge. You will emerge with a new set of tools tailored to you.
A diversity superhero will learn how to use their tools with care since misuse could result in psychological harm. Remember you are working with people, not inanimate objects.
Although it’s human nature to appear confident at all times, pay attention to your instincts. If you aren’t comfortable implementing a tool, you most likely shouldn’t.
Monitor Your Timing
Once you have discovered your DEI tools, consider the timing for implementation. A good tool used at the wrong time is still ineffective.
Think of superheroes. After they prepare a vehicle for their mission, they must consider the environmental conditions. If a storm is brewing, it will be more difficult to navigate, and they risk the outcome of the mission.
In the same way, you must read the room before you implement your DEI tools and strategies. Foundational DEI efforts may need to precede your entrance as a DEI superhero. Consider my viral tweet.
For instance, instead of relying on a diversity statement, look at your hiring data, discrimination claim stats, salary tables, retention numbers, diversity policies, and your leaders’ public actions against racism.
In this example, if recruitment data haven’t been compiled, it’s going to be difficult to develop a retention plan. Solutions like OpenComp’s DEI Dashboard give leaders instant insight into their pay equity position so they can identify gaps and track progress.
Organizations also can model Lyft’s publicly available 2020 Inclusion and Diversity report, which highlights the organization’s initiatives, metrics, and shortcomings. At a time when many people were disgruntled with workplace diversity efforts, their vulnerability proved refreshing.
Communication Is Critical
The foundation for any DEI movement is communication. Because of the capitalistic, patriarchal philosophies in most organizations, deep-seated historical issues must be discussed before DEI changes are implemented.
A healthy culture is one where communication is centered across employee levels. Research shows that welcoming environments with symmetrical communication increased the likelihood that diverse groups would speak positively of their workplace to others.
Inclusive communication practices also allow grace for failure and for learning from those failures. Such practices open the door for apologies and workplace healing, a topic that became increasingly prevalent during the pandemic. Workplaces Respond offers six supportive ways to address trauma that shows up at work.
Rest for the Journey
DEI work isn’t easy. Moving people and organizations can be uncomfortable and it requires courage, insight, humility, and openness to growth.
You may not get the accolades you want or deserve. You may even face resistance for what you are trying to achieve. When you want to engage with others who care about DEI, join groups outside your organization to learn and share in a facilitated space, such as the free workshops sponsored by Candidly Speaking. Your DEI community will recharge you as you move forward.
DEI work also requires grace with oneself to make mistakes and the fortitude to keep climbing. If you feel burnout creeping in, pause and engage in self-care. This could be as simple as learning a new skill or meeting new people. If you don’t know where to start, read the self-care tips of five DEI practitioners who have learned that DEI work is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Once you are equipped with knowledge, assess the feasibility of implementing your DEI tools. Seek feedback and self-assess as needed.
- Even if the organization thinks it’s ready for change, the people may not be. Step back, evaluate, and return when it’s ready for what a diversity superhero has to offer.
- Locate early adopters. Equip them with the necessary tools, monitor their progress, and assist as needed for change to happen at a sustainable pace.
- Although there is no one-size-fits-all model of DEI success, these basic principles increase the likelihood that anyone in an organization may become a diversity superhero.
Monica F. Cox, Ph.D., is a disruptor, trailblazer, change agent, and leader who believes in living an authentic life even if it makes people uncomfortable. She grew up an only child in rural southeast Alabama, where she was raised by her educator parents to persist in the face of personal and professional adversity. As a coach, she guides clients in areas of career development; business strategy; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. A Distinguished Professor of Engineering and entrepreneur, Dr. Cox's inquisitive nature contributes to her passion for educating others and sharing what she has learned via her experiences. Follow her on social media platforms @drmonicacox, and learn more about her business offerings at www.drmonicacox.com.