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During these highly-polarized times in America, we see some people weaponizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as a means to grow political power. Their premise: meaningful engagement in diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations and programs is about pursuing political correctness and a liberal social agenda.
The weaponization of concepts and ideas meant to improve outcomes and opportunities for all is wreaking havoc on our ability to have productive discourse, especially in the workplace. Inclusive leaders must be prepared to respond to the dissenting arguments around the value of more inclusive cultures to ensure that we do not undermine our core values and commitments to employees and all stakeholders.
Inclusive leaders need to think clearly and care deeply, so we can cut through the confusion around DEI. Here are four ways to do that.
Related: Diversity Is Not the Same to Everyone. Here’s Why That Matters
1. Diagnose why some use DEI as a weapon
Motivations animating the accusations that DEI is code for progressive politics include:
The fear of change: New realities bring hard adjustments. For people with much experience of advantage, it may be easier to caricature and blame DEI and harder to accept demographic shifts, immigrants, and differences in religion, gender identity and sexual orientation. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “There is probably no emotion that plagues and crumbles the human personality more than that of fear.” Such fear manifests every day among opportunistic politicians and commentators.
A waning commitment to critical thinking: Leaders cannot succeed when ignoring facts, history rightly told, and evidence-based decision-making. In contrast, much of the mounting criticism of DEI suffers from a lack of rigorous reflection. Take, for example, one outcome of the recent failure of Silicon Valley Bank. Andy Kessler of the Wall Street Journal offered a mostly useful analysis of why SVB failed. Unfortunately, he added a rogue thought about the diversity of the Bank’s board and wondered aloud if “the company may have been distracted by diversity demands.” He provided no evidence in his purely biased conjecture. It set off a feeding frenzy among politicians and ‘news’ people who choose to see DEI as a threat.
Grasping benefits embedded in discrimination and systemic racism: Bias can be consciously acted out and articulated. Some of the most insidious resistance to the goodness and power in DEI comes from those who see reality only as win/lose: if those experiencing disadvantage move forward, then these fearful, lazy-thinking, uncaring folks assume that they will lose position, resources, and opportunities. Here’s the deal with systemic racism: pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it so. And as inclusive leaders, we are either actively dismantling how bias operates — in our talent system, for instance — or we are complicit in the menacing impact of unchecked inequity.
2. Rediscover the “Why” in DEI
What’s an inclusive leader to do? We need to reconsider and recommit to business reasons for engaging with DEI. This means defining and measuring how DEI drives growth through the following:
- Talent: Selecting, growing, and retaining a mix of talent by disrupting bias and generating opportunities for people and systems.
- Products and Services: Leverage DEI to design, produce, and deliver our offerings.
- Revenue: Grow our market presence and customer connections.
- Process: Fuel innovation, improvement, and efficiencies through DEI.
- Environment, Social, Governance Commitment: Center DEI as a critical driver for ESG and investment funding.
- Brand: Build your reputation and your company’s brand as an inclusive leader.
DEI is the right thing to do because it’s the right thing to do for you, your team, and your organization. Contrary to the assumption that the case for DEI is so well substantiated it should be ignored, perhaps the new pressures should motivate us to revisit the business reasons for DEI.
Related: 7 Ways Leaders Can Level Up Their DEI Workplace Strategy
3. Invest in learning to lead more inclusively
In the face of political arguments and the risks that roil around diversity, I suggest that you re-inform your self-interest in leading inclusively. Here are several vital investments:
- Overcome your fear of discomfort because unease around DEI can provoke curiosity and profound learning. It’s not time to prohibit talking about sexual identities and orientation, it’s not time to hide the truth about slavery from our children, and it’s not time to run from the reality of white supremacy. It is time, as an inclusive leader, to find your courage, evoke bravery in your team and company, and accept discomfort as a source for transformation.
- Inclusive leadership is based on a set of skills that are really competencies to be developed. Learn more about them and then work on developing them yourself.
- Lead in ways that disrupt bias and create opportunity in your systems and culture. Inclusive managers attend to bias reduction in their relationships and decisions. And we join others in producing measurable growth in opportunities, especially among underrepresented colleagues.
Related: Do You Have an ‘Inclusion Delusion?’ Here’s How a Lack of Inclusivity Can Create a Toxic Culture
4. Communicate the success that DEI brings
The most effective antidote to the devaluing of DEI is to tell the success stories that always come from leading inclusively: winning and serving new customers across the globe, the ability to attract and retain a mix of talent, progress in ensuring that the majority of people are also finding the benefits that DEI delivers.
Measure what matters in terms of identities in your workforce and customer base across markets, and then talk about the hard-won progress in your metrics. Mention a colleague’s skill with inclusive leadership as part of announcing their promotion. Lean into the hard conversations, get real, choose vulnerability, and tell your truth in ways that build relationships.
We live and lead in an era of cross-currents: as we see people trying to weaponize DEI as a conspiracy and a threat, we know as inclusive leaders that diversity, equity, and inclusion are sources for growing our team, our companies, and our careers. Rightly viewed, this weaponization is an invitation to clarify the business-building power of DEI. As a result, we stay away from low-performing political arguments, and we lead with clarity, courage, and a competitive edge.