DEI & Vulnerability: How Leaders Can Drive Belonging in the Workplace

In the past five years, we have witnessed a shift as business leaders directly address societal issues, recognizing their employees and consumers are conscientious of business and brand stances on societal events. As we approach the one-year mark since George Floyd’s murder and the amplification of voices calling for societal change across multiple dimensions, it’s important to pause and reflect on what progress we have made – both individually and collectively — and how to continue to choose the next right step.

Leaders who have invested in a foundational understanding around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) concepts for all employees in their organizations have benefitted from higher levels of engagement – even in the middle of a global pandemic. These investments have allowed leaders at all levels the opportunity to examine their biases, engage in open dialogue, and learn new ways of working that prioritize inclusion.

Some leaders, however, have not yet initiated these DEI conversations, or may have viewed them as a “one and done” type of activity. Others lost them in the myriad of other priorities competing for their attention. To move from introductory awareness to thoughtful action, the most visible leaders in this space are:

  • Creating a sense of belonging for every employee
  • Shifting to a power sharing mindset
  • Opening up and getting vulnerable about the journey

To shift our focus from baseline DEI awareness to action, leaders must look for ways to foster a sense of belonging for every employee. This often starts with examining our unintended unconscious bias within the organization. Partnering with HR and business teams, leaders are starting to speak up and call for reviews of HR and business policies, procedures, and practices through a DEI lens.

Why is this important? Organizations have traditionally, though often unintentionally, embraced a “melting pot” mindset, which requires assimilation and aims for homogeny. By contrast, organizations that adopt a mosaic mindset create an environment where employees can bring their whole selves to work – including the things that are unique aspects of their personal and professional identity. So, what does it look like after reviewing organizational practices and actively designing a culture where employees can bring their whole selves to work?

  • Employees discontinuing the use of European-sounding names or nicknames in favor of their given names
  • Employees not feeling the need to “codeswitch” to adopt dominant culture speech patterns
  • Employees openly sharing their preferred pronouns with colleagues and customers
  • Employees wearing clothing and hairstyles that reflect their heritage

Adopting this mosaic mindset is a key step for leaders to prioritize inclusion and belonging. Brené Brown, one of the leading researchers in this space, notes: “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to BE who you are.” Leaders at organizations around the world are recognizing the role that belonging plays in the workforce. Some have even noted its importance by expanding their DEI nomenclature to DEI-B – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if leaders could simply add ‘Belonging’ to their list of organizational values to immediately transform their culture? We know, however, that without concerted, focused effort from executive leadership, in-depth diversity reviews, discussion of unconscious biases, and equity assessments and transformation, belonging will not magically appear.

A second step leaders can take to move from awareness to action and create a culture of belonging is to shift from a “power over” to a “power sharing” mindset. As we experience change, we often experience fear. There’s an unnamed fear, often felt by those in a majority group, that a change in the status quo is going to result in a “loss”. This fear can keep leaders from taking action critical to DEI-B advancement. Leaders recognize the need to grow beyond a fear-driven inclination and operate in a world where all employees can find belonging. 

For some, this fear can activate a scarcity mindset – a belief that when systemic advantage is removed and replaced with a more inclusive policy, it results in less opportunity or a loss of something. In dialogue with our clients, we’ve found that unnamed “something” is usually power. It’s an easy mental shortcut to think of power as a finite resource – like a pie. Once we divide up the pie slices, there are only so many to go around, and that means less for me! This view of power is the hallmark of traditional “power over” models, and the end result is that some people are power-full while some are power-less. So how do we overcome this fear? We begin by changing the way we think about power.

When we adopt a framework based on the belief there’s enough power to go around – power as an infinite resource rather than a finite pie – we embrace a new “power to” model. From this space, we can take a step back and recognize that we don’t “lose” anything by centering a voice that’s been traditionally absent from decision-making. It’s simply a more collaborative, relational, and team-oriented approach to power.

In those moments when we inevitably find ourselves pushing back against decisions that promote new ways of thinking, or when we react to changes in how business is done with fear, it’s a great practice to stop. Notice the scarcity mindset at play and ask yourself, “What power model am I working from, and how is it impacting others?”

As leaders shift to a power sharing mindset and work to create a sense of belonging for every employee, the final piece is to open up and get vulnerable about the journey. Leadership vulnerability is often discussed as a key leadership competency, but there are rarely clear examples of what it looks like to be vulnerable. Where is the line? What should I share, and what do I keep personal?

We believe DEI-B conversations present a distinct opportunity for leadership vulnerability. When leaders are vulnerable, they bring these tough conversations into the workplace. Many leaders fear taking a misstep or saying the wrong thing when it comes to DEI-B, so they say nothing and take no action. This unfortunately reinforces a message to all employees that these topics – and the employees who identify with or are affected by them – are not deserving of leaders’ time and attention.

Before diving headfirst into “over-sharing”, consider connecting with a trusted mentor, coach, or DEI-B expert to help you get started, especially if you are unsure where to begin. As with any new skill, it is important to learn as much as possible, model from others, and develop your abilities before you go live. 

Leaders modeling vulnerability have the complex and difficult conversations on DEI-B despite their fear of making a mistake. Throughout this learning process, vulnerable leaders approach these conversations with curiosity, growth, openness, and a true desire to understand. This vulnerability, alongside a willingness to be transparent with your team, is what drives sustainable change and better diversity outcomes in organizations. Leaders who do this effectively let their teams know they are:

  • Committed to advancing conversations on difficult topics
  • Creating space for dialogue, perspective sharing, and conflicting ideas
  • Taking steps to grow personally
  • Dedicated to investing in opportunities to help the team grow too
  • Aware that they’re not going to “get it right every time”

Again, that last point is important – understanding you’re going to make mistakes is an important part of this process. It doesn’t mean, however, that we can let ourselves, or others, off the hook for actionable progress. Think of it this way – when you first learn a new sport, you don’t keep score on your first time out, but as you build your skills the importance of the score becomes relevant. In the DEI-B space, this analogy holds true. As we move from awareness to action, it becomes more important to measure the impact of our efforts.

So where can leaders start? Continue to seek opportunities to build awareness. This is where the magic happens and when your mindset begins to shift. Carve out time for reflection and discussion, and then don’t wait! Take focused, decisive action:

  • Prioritize your growth. Attend trainings and read as much as you can to learn more about DEI-B. Tap into your network. Who do you know who is an expert in this area? Learn from them. Connect with mentors and coaches to assist you in building these skills. It’s important to start here so you have a comprehensive understanding of DEI-B concepts.
  • Create a network of trusted advisors. Start with your trusted circle and build your skills with those who can give you honest feedback and share in your vulnerability. Even with your inner circle, it may be uncomfortable. That’s okay. The only way past the discomfort is through it.
  • Speak up. Ask questions from a place of curiosity to learn more about why things are the way they are in your organization. Have conversations with HR and business leaders around norms, policies, procedures, and their intended outcomes. When things fall short of an intended outcome, ensure a diverse team helps co-create a solution.
  • Commit to one-on-one sessions with each of your team members, specifically focused on DEI-B topics. Be vulnerable and dig below the surface answers. Discover their perspectives and challenges. Then invite them into the growth process.
  • Normalize difficult conversations in these one-on-one conversations and small group discussions with your team. The more you model these topics with openness and evolution, the more others will follow.
  • Try new ways to promote new ways of working. One leadership team started “Failure Fridays” where they openly shared mistakes and missteps with the group, with the aim of eliminating the shame we often feel when we fail and focusing on the lessons learned for improvement. How could you embrace a growth mindset to turn a misstep into a learning opportunity?

As you reflect on the past year and look to grow in your DEI-B journey, consider how can you apply these concepts within your own organization? How can you reward vulnerability and progress on DEI-B? How can you support your team and organization in moving from awareness to action?

Want some help taking that first step? Need a trusted advisor by your side to hold you accountable to your commitment to create greater workplace equity in your organization and be more inclusive of the diverse members of your team? Give us a call at 310.589.4600 or email me today to discuss your specific challenges and individual goals in creating greater employee engagement and belonging. Or feel free to visit the Workplace Equity page of our website for more information on a series of workshops to help you and your leaders increase cultural awareness at work. It would be an honor to support you!

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Dr. Ashley Allen Seeley for her vision and expertise, and especially for her generous contribution in co-authoring this article.

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