Here's a scenario we've come across in our work in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space: Kim, the CEO of a small business, has made DEI a priority since founding her company in 2015. She’s proud of her team’s diversity and is seen as a DEI leader among her peers, often providing guidance to other business owners in her circle. But despite regularly asking her board and employees for ideas on how to improve the company’s DEI efforts, she struggles with the feeling that she isn’t getting the direct feedback she needs to improve.
Kim, the well-intentioned, successful CEO, will probably never feel like she’s addressed all her DEI growth areas. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the core tenets of cultural humility, a mindset that frames DEI work as a lifelong personal and organizational learning process. Here are a few steps to effectively solicit the feedback that enables that learning.
Step 1: Start with yourself.
In 2001, clinical psychologist Dr. Pamela Hays published a framework called ADDRESSING—more on that below—to help clinicians remember the many socio-cultural identities that we each hold.
If you’ve read our book or attended one of our workshops, you know we’re big fans of the ADDRESSING framework. We’ve expanded it a bit here to include the types of historical oppression associated with each identity:
- Age (ageism)
- Disability status (ableism)
- Diagnosis, mental health (mental-health stigma)
- Religion (religious persecution)
- Race (racism)
- Ethnicity (xenophobia)
- Socioeconomic status (classism)
- Sexual orientation (biphobia, homophobia)
- Indigenous heritage (indigenous erasure)
- Nation of origin (xenophobia, citizenship barriers)
- Gender identity and gender expression (transphobia, sexism)
This framework can be helpful in checking in on where your organization is and isn’t actively working against injustice in the workplace.
Make a table with three columns. In column one, write the ADDRESSING identities noted above. In column two, note current efforts within your organization to become a more inclusive place for each one. In column three, brainstorm ideas for new initiatives to fill the gaps. (A tip: you can reuse ideas across identities if you think they’d be effective for more than one.)
You could also do a similar exercise for your personal growth areas. For example, if Kim the CEO identifies as: adult, able-bodied, no current mental-health diagnoses, spiritual, white, European American heritage, history of financial stress with increasing comfort, queer, no Indigenous heritage, born in the US, cisgender woman, she would be more likely to have growth areas regarding issues related to age, ability, race, ethnicity, Indigenous heritage and nation of origin.
Finally, align your personal growth areas with the DEI initiatives taken by the organization. Do you see gaps or opportunities?
Step 2: Bring in your leadership team.
Regularly solicit direct feedback from others at your level of leadership, who may feel more empowered to offer critiques than a direct report would. You’re also more likely to get useful information from people who have observed you receive feedback or bad news and bounce back from it, which gives them a better sense of how they can deliver feedback most effectively to you.
Consider sharing your organizational ADDRESSING table with your leadership team, and use it as a jumping-off point to brainstorm ways the company could improve. Follow this meeting with an anonymous survey to collect additional ideas and insight that people may not be comfortable sharing in a group setting. The key here is to create multiple opportunities for input while prioritizing processes that are most comfortable for the person providing that feedback, who is taking at risk in doing so.
Step 3: Invite company feedback—and have a plan for how you’ll compensate for it.
Too often, leaders rely on their marginalized employees to provide insights and ideas for advancing company DEI efforts. This approach is ineffective for two reasons: One, it adds an extra burden for the same workers these efforts ostensibly support. Two, it puts them in a situation where their critiques could trigger feelings of anger, resentment, and defensiveness from supervisors and peers.
Instead, make a more open call for company-wide feedback. Design methods that are both visible and anonymous, offering employees the choice to be recognized for their time, or to provide ideas anonymously. Consider ways to incentivize employees to participate and compensate them for doing so, like offering those who complete surveys the chance to win a gift card.
Step 4: Consider bringing in an outside perspective.
Hiring external consultants can be an extremely effective way to get fresh eyes on DEI strengths and weaknesses. Because they have less to lose than people who report to you, their feedback is often more direct, honest, and impactful. And consultant assessments are typically based on work with hundreds of companies, which can be more effective than relying on internal surveys whose creators may lack DEI and survey-design expertise.
In cases like Kim’s, where other CEOs in her field seek out her advice, she might feel like she has little to learn from other companies, but the most effective efforts are often grassroots and might be led by people not in leadership positions. Consultants who have worked with multiple organizations across industries can provide insights here.
Step 5: Keep learning.
Remember that there are plenty of experts in the field who have already published roadmaps for company DEI improvement. Books like The Necessary Journey by Ella F. Washington provide case examples from a range of industries. Our book, Did that Just Happen?! Beyond “Diversity”―Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations, offers a series of exercises and skills that leadership and companies more broadly can develop to prevent, and address, identity-related issues. Attending DEI-related conferences in your field can also yield new ideas of things to try.
Actively soliciting honest DEI feedback requires both courage and skill: courage to hear the truth, and skill to respond effectively. Both of those are traits to cultivate deliberately over time, by reading, attending DEI-focused events, and broadly seeking out new perspectives on how to create a more equitable workplace. The organizational leaders who are successful in advancing DEI efforts understand that you can’t address what you don’t know or comprehend.
Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth are Harvard-affiliated licensed clinical psychologists and authors of the top-rated human-resources and business book, Did That Just Happen?! Beyond Diversity-Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations. They co-founded Twin Star Diversity Intersectional Trainers, through which they consult globally to organizations seeking practical solutions to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.