Last month, while giving a diversity-focused book talk at a Fortune 500 company’s headquarters in Washington, DC, we received a question that was all too familiar to us.
We had reached the Q&A section of the talk when an employee named Marissa, who identified herself as the chair of the company’s diversity committee, stood and said: “All of these diversity-related recruitment and collaboration suggestions sound great, and we are committed to integrating them into our practices. However, you’ll notice that despite being a massive company, there are only 15 of us at this book talk. That’s how it always is.”
“We can get as skilled as we want as a group of 15 people that self-selected into this committee, but sometimes it feels like we’re preaching to the choir,” she continued. “Will we really be able to change the culture of this company if the same people are the only ones in these spaces, time and time again?”
As Marissa asked her question, we felt a collective sigh—both among ourselves and externally, as frustration rippled across the room. We’ve both felt this within our own organizations, and we’ve experienced it in almost every company we’ve worked with: The same small group of dedicated folks, committed to improving the culture of their company, show up week after week, do the work, and lose hope in the face of widespread indifference.
Even when diversity trainings are required, the divide between the so-called “choir” and the “congregation”—those who are engaged and those who are just there because they have to be—is palpable. It's painfully obvious who has been showing up and attempting to walk the walk, and who is reluctantly present, wishing the minutes away, and perhaps questioning the importance of the training altogether.
Most often, a company’s “diversity committee” or the equivalent is made up of people who have cared about identity-related considerations for a long time. Frequently, they hold marginalized identities themselves and are seeking refuge in a safer space. Since creating sustainably diverse cultures is a relatively new value for companies, these groups are typically small. They’re also often set up for burnout.
Any shift in company culture is most successful when the majority of the company is on board. Imagine, for example, an effort to reduce email fatigue and promote work-life balance by discouraging the sending of emails after hours. What would happen if only a small percentage of the workforce committed to the new practices, while the majority continued with business as usual? Not only would the effort falter and fade, but the minority group likely would feel left out and even penalized for going against the tide. Undoubtedly, many would question the company’s commitment to promoting a healthier work-life culture. When big change is only advocated for by a small few, that group is likely to experience fatigue, frustration, and hopelessness.
That’s even more true when it comes to identity-related discussions and culture shifts. Most of us were taught not to talk about identity-related topics (race, religion, gender), especially in the workplace. Maintaining the status quo is a much more comfortable response than confronting one’s own white supremacist behaviors and making hard changes.
But failure to make tangible progress toward greater diversity and inclusivity won’t just create disillusionment and pain among the committed few. Over time, it will likely lead to costly resignation and turnover among a larger swath of employees who feel unsupported by their organization. No one wins.
So what to do about it?
First, try to understand what is being communicated by your company’s lack of engagement. What does it mean, for example, that 600 of your company's employees posted rainbow flags on their Instagram feeds with your company logo in June, but only 20 serve on the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committee? Are folks “too busy” to engage? Are people motivated, but lacking knowledge or afraid of making mistakes? Is it just the norm that people don’t opt-in? Is leadership on these committees? If they are not, what does that say?
Next, consider ways that company leadership can promote engagement. The key here is to move away from a “preaching to the choir“ mentality by creating new standards and norms for all members of the organization. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Integrate DEI-related announcements and interventions into existing regular staff meetings. This strategy communicates the importance of the work and signals that it’s something the organization considers key to day-to-day functioning, rather than something siloed off.
- Move away from a “one and done” mentality. Make some DEI-related workshops and seminars required (beginning with more accessible topics, to encourage genuine interest and curiosity). Set your cadence, whether that's quarterly or biannually, and stick to it. It helps for people to know that there is more to come, and that this conversation will continue indefinitely.
- Consider using company-wide asynchronous trainings. There are some excellent DEI-focused options out there on recognizing implicit bias, building team engagement, and promoting inclusive leadership, to name a few. Create healthy team rivalry by recognizing and rewarding the groups with the highest completion rate for each module.
- Establish common language for identity-related conversations, which can help ease people’s fears of saying the wrong thing, and create ample opportunities for learning. For example, you might introduce a “term of the month,” with terms like “privilege,” “anti-racism,” and “identity-related aggressions (IRAs),” and build in ways for team members to engage with the chosen phrase throughout the month, such as setting aside time in a regular meeting to talk about examples of common workplace IRAs. Help team members feel more ownership by appointing a different employee or department to lead the discussion on a rotating basis.
As employees grow more accustomed to these new practices, leaders can also incentivize exceptional engagement with increased bonuses, recognition, or decreasing the workload in other domains to add more bandwidth for DEI work. In our experience, when a company can engage more of its workforce in promoting DEI, the rewards build on themselves: People are often surprised by their ability to innovate in this space, and even the “choir” can gain inspiration when there are more voices in the room, making the work more sustainable for everyone.
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.