by Jennifer Brown, founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting and author of “How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive”
Over the past several decades, companies have invested heavily in DEI programs and initiatives. Yet most programs that exist today are still focused on compliance and performative actions, are siloed in HR departments, and lack the commitment and involvement of senior leaders. Few are designed to shift systems or address the patterns of exclusion, oppression, and disadvantage underrepresented and marginalized groups continue to face in the workplace.
To build a more inclusive and equitable future, leaders in positions of power and influence must play an active role in disrupting the status quo. The hard truth is that, with a labor market that’s becoming more competitive and more diverse, leaders who aren’t making an effort to become more inclusive, accountable, and equity minded will be left behind. Yet I have found that most leaders are still holding back.
In my twenty years of DEI work, I often encounter three types of leaders. I have worked with some leaders who really get it, who grasp the extent to which the playing field is not equal, and who understand that they have a role in fixing that. They lead with purpose and are on the front lines of challenging inequities and changing systems. When we work with leaders like this, we can dig in and get right to work.
Then there are other leaders who have awakened to the realities of the world around them but are reluctant to get involved. Many don’t do anything because they’re afraid of making a mistake, of getting it wrong. This is new territory, and they don’t feel like they have the right words or vocabulary to step into the conversation. They are not even sure if they are welcome. So they stay on the sidelines and their lack of action maintains and protects the status quo.
And there are still too many leaders who just don’t understand the depth and impact of the inequities that surround them. They don’t see what any of it has to do with them. With these leaders, I can’t count how many times deflections fill the room when I start to talk about DEI and why it matters. These are just a few that are verbalized:
- People need to stop being so sensitive.
- I’m buried — I don’t have time to prioritize this work.
- I prefer to see past race and gender — we’re all just people.
- We did unconscious bias training, so I don’t think we have any major issues here.
- Are you suggesting we should have quotas?
I think of these as deflections because they aren’t genuine curiosities about the way forward; they are barriers and distractions that are often raised to obscure or delay responsible action. But being unwilling to look clear-eyed at the dramatic changes around us — in our colleagues, in our professional landscape, in global markets — is a classic tactic of avoidance.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think of these types of leaders as bad people. But I do think many people who are in leadership roles probably have no idea what many of their colleagues are going through at work since the experience is likely vastly different from their own reality. And because they don’t understand the problems people with other identities experience, they aren’t able to take the brave and necessary leadership actions needed.
When the world around us looks like us and is designed to work for us, it can be hard to grasp the extent to which the playing field is skewed in our favor. For those who have more privileged backgrounds, it can be easy to dismiss or downplay the experiences and outcomes of people who’ve been historically marginalized and underrepresented in a given system. The truth is, privilege can be invisible to those of us who have it.
The reality is that biases and inequities have permeated just about every aspect of the professional world, from decades (if not centuries) of pattern build-up. This is not a problem that will just go away if we all think good thoughts or avoid facing the truth about the systems around us. As the ground rapidly shifts under our feet, our inability to see the once-in-a-generation opportunity for change is a liability for all of us. Our future impact — and legacy — depend on how we step up during this moment.
The unwillingness to look at what needs to change and how we as leaders can contribute is a missed opportunity to evolve, to trans- form, and to equip ourselves to build something that works for more of us — and that will benefit all of us.
Unfortunately, no business strategy, including DEI, will deliver optimal results if individuals with power and influence are disconnected from that strategy. If the very people who are in the position to make change happen are unaware there’s a problem, in denial that inequities exist, or throwing their hands up about the supposed complexity — or cost—of fixing the problem, we will never scratch the surface of what’s possible.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. — MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
I have always found this quote by MLK inspirational. In the midst of confusion, overwhelm, and uncertainty about our increasingly chaotic world, it gives me hope that an inevitable shift toward a more just world is possible, where all people are treated equitably and respectfully. But most of all, I don’t believe his words condone passivity or inaction, for any of us.
It used to be enough for me to take solace in MLK’s words, but because I’ve been focused on building more inclusive workplaces now for nearly two decades, I’ve come to realize a hard fact: just a relative few of us are doing the lion’s share of the work to bend the arc.
The pressing question this leaves us with is, who’s missing from the change team, and why?
Historically, DEI programs have been centered around the needs of marginalized and underrepresented employees and addressing the barriers and inequities these groups experience. Although unintended, the impact of this focus has distanced many people in leadership positions from understanding their potential contribution and role in DEI efforts.
For the most part, it is members of marginalized communities who take up the mantle to do the work of challenging discriminatory practices and systems. But every time we automatically turn to the woman, the Black or Brown leader, the person with a disability, or any other individual belonging to a marginalized community to take responsibility for identifying and addressing organizational inequities, we are abdicating our own role and responsibility. This needs to change.
Each of us must begin to take responsibility for the roles that we can play, especially if we hold positions of privilege, power, and influence but have been passive or inactive. We may not have been directly affected by inequities; we might feel it’s not our fight. But this in itself is a privilege: to have the choice to remain on the sidelines in the fight for equity while others struggle.
Whenever my company begins work on an organization’s DEI strategy, we insist on working with top leadership. When it comes to disrupting the status quo and creating equity in the workplace, much power lies with leaders who set the standards and tone for everything from who gets hired and who advances to what the workplace culture looks like. We understand that without their buy-in and personal involvement, our efforts will have more limited impact and will be more difficult to sustain. The reality is, leaders are an influential employee group in the workforce to drive real change.
As leaders, we can’t sit back and wait for the arc of history to bend by itself or keep expecting others to put their shoulders to the wheel. If we want a more just world, one in which the playing field begins to equalize, we need to grasp the urgency of our own role and responsibility to bend the arc. We have to do our part, and we still have a long way to go.
*Reprinted from How to Be an Inclusive Leader, Second Edition with the permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2022 by Jennifer Brown.
Jennifer Brown (she/her/hers) is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, and best-selling author. She is founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC), and is a sought-after keynote speaker for executive leadership on the topic of leading inclusively in uncertain times. She sits on the Influencer Advisory Board for Sparks & Honey, as well as L’Oreal’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board.