In 2020, I wrote an article for TrainingIndustry.com about how coaching can help support diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives as an alternative (or supplement) to unconscious bias training. At the time, DEIB was an extremely “hot topic,” but corporate investment in DEIB initiatives has cooled since then. Compared to 2020 numbers, there’s an 18% decrease in the number of leaders who endorse their company’s overall DEIB efforts. And 11% of employers say that DEIB programs will be among the first to go when they are forced to cut costs. What is going on here? Why the sudden divestment from DEIB?
Perhaps it is due to the prevailing narrative that “DEIB doesn’t work.” Those of us who work in DEIB-related spaces (and the enthusiasts out there) know that lack of structures and systems is the main culprit when DEIB programs fail. In my previous article, I touched on unconscious bias training, which on its own is proven to be ineffective in actually helping people question their biases. Some studies show that the positive effects of these kinds of trainings only last one to two days, and a handful of other studies also provide evidence that “diversity training” can actually activate biases or cause backlash. Behavioral science teaches us that people don’t like to feel like they are being forced to learn information or like their behavior is being policed, which is an unintentional side effect of unconscious bias training. The unfortunate reality is that many of the U.S.’s largest corporations do DEIB initiatives this way and leave it at that, without creating structures and systems that keep employees engaged long-term.
Research from the University of Toronto shows that when people feel like they have agency to problem-solve and make their own choices, they are more likely to reduce their biases. For a DEIB initiative to succeed, it must include systems and structures that keep people engaged while focusing on their agency — that’s what creates the buy-in that can lead to personal growth. It’s great for leaders to learn about their biases, but they also need to stay motivated to change their behavior. And they need structure to check their biases on a regular basis and make sure those blind spots aren’t running the business.
One way to accomplish this is to include DEIB as part of leadership training. When DEIB and leadership development are inseparable, there’s a structure in place that reinforces the importance of DEIB. That’s much more effective than, for example, adding a one-time inclusive leadership course to your curriculum. One way we accomplish this at Change Coaches is by running our psychological safety course through a belonging lens, which challenges leaders to dismantle structures that are preventing psychological safety within their teams, especially for marginalized groups.
Another way we can merge leadership training with DEIB is through coaching. Coaching is proven to be one of the most successful leadership training strategies — it can help leaders identify their own solutions and create long-term structures to optimize their success. Studies also show that leadership assessments are most effective when paired with coaching because people need context and guidance to make real change. When leadership coaching has a DEIB lens, it creates an incredibly powerful structure that reinforces the importance of belonging and psychological safety for all employees. It also engages the leader long-term, developing their sense of agency and ownership over their personal growth.
This brings us to a central problem: since so many DEIB initiatives are being cut, how are leaders supposed to access the skills and techniques that today’s employees crave? Nearly 80% of employees want to work for a company that values diversity, equity and inclusion. Lots of companies start to work on DEIB initiatives, but never follow through, which can be incredibly frustrating for well-intentioned leaders without the resources to change their circumstances. But fortunately, there are ways for those leaders to incorporate DEIB into their organizations themselves. By using coaching tactics in creative ways, any leader can create the necessary systems and structures to reinforce DEIB in a way that feels actionable.
Here are some steps to get started:
Step 1: Ask your organization to articulate DEIB goals.
If you’ve ever worked with a coach, you probably are aware that they usually start engagements by getting a sense of the client’s goals. They want to know the intrinsic goals you set for yourself and will often push you to be more specific. I think one of the biggest reasons DEIB initiatives fail is because organizations can’t get clear on their goals — they either set too many, or the goals they set are too vague. The process isn’t about the goals we think you should have; it’s about getting you to select goals that are right for your organization, and that feel doable.
Some examples (and good questions to ask yourself) might include:
- Why are we doing this?
- What is the urgency?
- What will be our focus? For instance, do you want to focus on:
- Bring in more diversity?
- Be more inclusive within our organization, whether for innovation or other reasons?
- Create equitable access to our company or products?
- Create equitable processes for promotions and opportunities?
- Create a culture of belonging or psychological safety?
- Work with more underrecognized vendors?
As a coach, I usually stray away from “why” questions, but not in this case. No matter which questions you choose or the approach you settle on, be sure to ask yourself why, because the answer to that question will motivate you and your team.
This may go against many of your approaches (I assume there are many overachievers reading this that really want to make progress) but one to two goals each year is more than enough! Remember that quality is always more important than quantity. Plus, while it’s always nice to have stretch goals, go with something that’s achievable to get started. Continue to raise the bar from there.
Step 2: Be inclusive about the goal setting process in step one.
DEIB goal setting shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. As you’re working to articulate your DEIB goals, talk to others and get input on what they think those goals should be. Executives, colleagues, employees and team members should get a chance to weigh in. If there’s a way to collect this feedback anonymously, that might be even more effective. Studies show that employees are 74% more likely to give feedback if they can trust that it will be anonymous, and you’re likely to learn more about how your organization can improve if you get honest input.
Step 3: Define what success looks like.
Setting and communicating your goals is important, but it’s not going to be a very effective DEIB initiative if you haven’t considered what success looks like. Ask yourself how you’ll know you’ve achieved your goals — and remember: quality over quantity. If you’re struggling to imagine what success looks like, you might want to pick a goal that is less of a stretch. When you’ve settled on a good goal, write down whatever comes to mind without judging yourself. This will help you begin the next step of the process: figuring out how you’ll measure your success.
Step 4: Create the structures and systems to help you measure and maintain your progress.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve decided your goal is to cultivate a stronger sense of psychological safety. For you, success looks like your employees reporting feeling more psychologically safe at work, getting better results on your culture surveys, naturally attracting more diverse ideas and decreased employee turnover. Your measures of success could be culture surveys and leadership assessments — systems you can use to quantify and report your success.
Let’s say that in year one, you see better culture survey scores. It’s important to take some time to examine the structures you put in place to make progress. Did your team participate in a learning experience that helped them raise the score? Did you start evaluating managers on psychological safety? Perhaps you implemented some new team meeting guidelines? Whatever you might have done was a structure that you will want to continue to cultivate to measure and maintain your progress.
There are other structures you can use in addition, including getting qualitative feedback in between surveys and having leaders do self-check-ins and team-check-ins. Any structures you add should make it easier for you to have conversations, remove organizational barriers, and pare down your ambitions to include the most important core goals. If your structures are enabling those things, you’re probably on the right track!
Step 5: Ask yourself what’s next.
DEIB is an ongoing process. If you didn’t accomplish your goal, ask yourself why that might be. This is a great opportunity to have an honest conversation with yourself and your team about how you can do better, and to reevaluate your efforts. Maybe you need to pick a more specific or achievable goal, create more robust structures or further interrogate your own biases.
If you feel like you’ve accomplished your goal, that’s great! Ask yourself what barriers could get in the way of your continued success, how you might remove those barriers and what you’re still missing. It might be time to accomplish a new goal, or simply to keep working on your current one. Either way, following the steps outlined in this article will help you drive change in your organization, step by step.