By Stacey A. L. Best, Esq.
DEI as a Stand-Alone Concept
Diversity Equity and Inclusion, or “DEI,” means different things to different people, even in the same organization. For some, “DEI” is a singular noun meaning or relating to people of color, gender identity, or sexual orientation. For others, the acronym means increasing numbers of people belonging to those groups whose numbers are below their relative percentages in the larger population. To be sure, as far as they go, both definitions are mostly accurate. But these definitions fail to grasp the connection between “diversity” and the remaining parts of the acronym, “equity” and “inclusion,” and as a result, miss that there is a connection between DEI efforts and wellbeing.
Diversifying the ranks does not create wellbeing. Even diversity in leadership may not be enough to improve the environment so the workforce can thrive. That is because diversity does not automatically lead to equity, any more than equality leads automatically to inclusion. Equity and inclusion are necessary elements to wellbeing in a diverse workforce and they must be intentionally pursued.
Equity and Inclusion Equal Wellbeing
Many ask, “why can’t we just treat everyone equally?” The divergence between the concepts of equality and equity can be quickly and easily described. The internet abounds with graphic examples. Here is one that depicts the concepts of equality and equity while also incorporating visible diversity.
This image gives a graphic example of how equity intersects with inclusion. We also see here how equality is depicted as pointless and can even be perceived as intentionally exclusionary. Using the illustration, it is not hard to imagine the harm caused when we fail to be equitable and inclusive.
Given the differences between equality and equity in the illustration, we infer that inclusion is the goal. Assuming the goal is to enable all to enjoy the game, equity produced inclusion, which undoubtedly improved the wellbeing of the participants.
The need to adjust in certain contexts is obvious. In the illustration, the entire set of transactions needed to address the apparent inequities can be completed with little or no communication around problem identification. The method for removing barriers to inclusion in such circumstances has become common place. Circumstances like these are not very complicated and the remedy is readily recognized.
If the barriers to inclusion are not readily evident, finding equitable solutions presents different challenges. When the complexity of the barriers increases, so too do questions about the goal. There are related and important questions about who bears the responsibility to identify and attend to inequities. In both situations, where the barriers are unclear or complex, communication becomes a critical part of finding equitable solutions.
Leaving aside for a few more moments questions of responsibility for identifying and addressing inequities, the illustration helps us to see that equality does not work across the board, and equity is integral to inclusion and wellbeing. In other words, while DEI and wellbeing may be distinct disciplines, in study, and in life, they are interrelated.
Leaders wanting to create an environment that promotes wellbeing and in which employees can thrive must pay attention to issues of equity and inclusion. Any definition of DEI that ends at diversity of the ranks does not take equity and inclusion into account. While the definition of DEI that involves representation may result in attention to issues of equity and inclusion, it is not a forgone outcome. The goal and strategy must be intentional.
DEI Leaders and Leadership
Even leaders who are committed to creating an inclusive environment will face challenges identifying and addressing barriers, especially barriers outside of their frame of reference. Many are turning to DEI practitioners for help. Inclusion, however, is relational, so there is no way for leaders to outsource their responsibility to show care for employees whose identities have very little overlap with their own.
When considering wellbeing activities generally, leaders should consider activities that all staff can enjoy. Failing to consider the “Big 8” socially constructed identities of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality, and socioeconomic status, when choosing activities for the firm or agency can undermine DEI and wellbeing efforts. For some already on the brink of burnout, group activities that do not speak to them can feel compulsory and deepen feelings of being unseen and unheard.
Lean into Discomfort
With concepts like Critical Race Theory, on the one hand, and litmus tests for “being woke,” on the other hand, being used today as sword and shield, many are afraid to wade into uncomfortable conversation lest they be hit with the scarlet “R” of racist. In this way, fear can prevent leaders from learning about those who are different from them, driving disconnection and hastening burnout for employees who are already likely at higher risk for such consequences.
The fear of getting it wrong can be particularly exacerbated in lawyers who are taught to be cautious and stay away from areas where they are not competent to avoid malpractice. Typically, our responses will include avoiding these issues altogether, faking it ‘til we make it, or, because lawyers like to cover our bases, outsourcing responsibility to a dedicated professional and then, otherwise avoiding the issue. Such responses would be a missed opportunity.
While fear of getting it wrong is rational, leaders who want to create an environment that supports wellbeing will not apply this mindset to gaps in their knowledge about their employees. Relationships are challenging, especially relationships between people who identify differently and where there are significant differences in power dynamics. Relationships are two-way streets. So, while leaders need to build their capacity to identify and address barriers to inclusion, they should not be alone in that endeavor. Employees must contribute to problem identification and provide productive feedback.
Miscues and missteps should be expected. And everyone, including the employees the leader is trying to serve, will make them. Instead of bracing with fear, an effective leader will lean in with curiosity. An effective leader knows one thing: no one knows everything. Leaders who are open and curious might, as with the illustration, be able to observe the impact of office norms or choices of activities on their employees. Many more, though, will need to find ways to learn what they need to know from their employees.
An open and curious leader might learn by reading or listening to stories of others and realize how office norms and activities pose a barrier to employee engagement. An open and curious leader might ask employees directly how they feel about particular norms or activities. Or, an open and curious leader might take an indirect approach, presenting a scenario and waiting for feedback. The exact approach matters less than the effort because it is in the effort that care is shown.
Promote Psychological Safety
Being open and curious is an important aspect of creating a culture that promotes psychological safety. Still, employees need to know that they can trust their leaders with the unseen parts of their identity. Leaders must show some capacity to hold space for employees by being willing to confront challenges to disclosure including challenges coming from the leader herself.
Accepting responsibility for errors such as problems created by ill-considered communications rather than passing it onto someone else, attributing it to the employee, or ignoring it indicates employees can trust their leader. This will require leaders to resist human impulses that come with feelings of rejection. It means showing vulnerability. Remember, missteps and miscues will happen and, everyone will make them.
Showing employees how to handle disappointments and setbacks will give them an indication of how their leader will receive them when reporting emotionally challenging feedback. Equally, modeling respectful delivery of feedback to ill-considered communication will not only let employees know that they can safely disclose things to a leader but will also give them guidance on how to appropriately give feedback when facing similar circumstances.
Create a Culture of Feedback
Developing an inclusive environment requires a culture of giving and receiving effective feedback. Being open to feedback, also a critical part of improving psychological safety, means being open to hearing that an effort failed or did not land well with some employees. Further, a good leader will want to learn more than that something did not work; good leaders will want to know why it did not work. Getting to the heart of the matter is a skill that takes practice.
Anonymous surveys and the like might be popular and tempting options but consider the message they send about psychological safety as well as the limitations they pose on feedback. Instead, consider feedback an exchange of ideas with the goal being mutual respect and understanding. Practice being specific and avoid generalities and characterizations. Developing this culture will provide leaders open channels to learn what their employees need to thrive.
It is easy to think that DEI and wellbeing are unrelated specialties. They can be, but for leaders committed to protecting and improving the wellbeing of their employees, they cannot be. In fact, leaders who keep the two important concepts or goals separate risk negatively impacting the wellbeing of those employees who were the focus of their DEI efforts.