Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result.

2020 has been a landmark year for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace. Many organizations have brought new energy, focus and urgency to this topic, with a commitment to enable sustainable change and progress. As protests against racial injustice erupted around the world, many employers and leaders from various industries were quickly responsive, pledging to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work within their companies and ignite inclusive conversations across organizational ecosystems. This newfound energy, coupled with the quick shift to remote learning and working, created a unique environment for DEI to take the overdue and crucial seat at the forefront of policy and mindsets in many corporate environments.

Designing strategic initiatives to combat systemic bias, discrimination and inequity in the workplace has been an important first step for many organizations. Some chief executive officers and executive leaders have chosen purpose over politics and leaned into their own vulnerability, quickly rolling out new mantras, trainings and initiatives. Diverse channels and methods for growth have emerged, especially around topics such as inclusivity, emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion. Meanwhile, more functional competencies such as agility, digital dexterity and strategic planning have proven essential to creating sustainable results. This moment has revealed potential for progress and positive disruption — but only by taking both a systemic and programmatic look at DEI.

In 2021, DEI will continue to be a priority, but success will come to organizations that no longer treat it as a sprint but, rather, as a marathon. Strong DEI programs call for sustained commitment and endurance to deconstruct deep-rooted bias, inequity and discrimination in order to build cultures of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Focus, urgency and investment do not promise easy solutions. Efforts must go beyond compliance or check-the-box exercises and training programs. In order to sustain DEI in an organization, the systemic challenges that keep DEI from taking root must first be flushed out. It will take time and effort to evolve organizational culture, and endurance, resilience, agility and perseverance are key capabilities for this journey.

Here are some actions that organizational leaders can take now to help build their resilience and ensure lasting impact:

Choose a Starting Point for the Journey, and Map the Plan

Employers have the power to implement a systemic plan to combat bias and discrimination, but systemic change will not occur overnight. It requires deliberate, thoughtful strategic planning that starts with assessment, awareness and acknowledgment of where an organization is on its journey. It is counterproductive to cut corners with DEI and try to start somewhere in the middle. Organizations that try to create change without conducting a deep-rooted analysis first will set themselves up for failure.

Unconscious bias training should not be used as a check-the-box exercise to “fix” people. Rather, effective training is meant to reveal implicit bias within individuals and organizational mechanisms that inform recruitment, transfers and promotions (to name a few). Without knowing where the marathon begins and mapping out attainable goals, people and organizations run the risk of burning out. The opportunity to begin a DEI journey is pressing, but building real transformative experiences requires agility, a realistic assessment of the journey and attainable aspirations for improvement.

Bring Accountability Partners Along for the Ride

For long-term change, leadership cannot simply rely on human resources (HR) or DEI leaders to champion this work. In the new year, expect organizations of all sizes to democratize the journey, to create systems of accountability partners through their ecosystems so that the focus and energy behind this transformation does not rest with a few. Inclusion councils, “extreme listening” meetings and surveys, and business advisory groups are all examples of how organizations can hold all leaders accountable through democratized, resourced and sponsored action.

Individual employees must strive to be inclusive not just in behavior but in communications, data collection and reporting, and mindset. Many organizations have set up regular group discussions to encourage open dialogue and awareness of individual and systemic bias. Training programs and experiences will continue to educate while providing learners with access to diverse perspectives and experiences, especially in virtual settings. Some of the most transformative conversations happen in well-facilitated, safe, virtual team meetings, where leaders empower others to share their stories. No one can take this journey alone, so a strong network of accountability partners and sponsors will be essential to building endurance and resilience.

Investment in Practice Makes a Permanent Mindset

Diversity, equity and inclusion work is profoundly human, and restructuring, facilitating and tracking progress without human, in-person interaction presents many challenges. With technical glitches, camera fatigue, the continued emotional and physical trauma of the pandemic, connecting virtually has become both a blessing and an equalizer as well as a disruptor and a pest.

In 2021, DEI programs and initiatives will still be fueled by humans — but digitally. This approach requires a mindset shift, and it is essential to keep going, one step at a time. The search is not for perfection or a mandated formula for mistakes, for opportunities to learn and for permanent transformation. Instead of trying to create a conflict-free, homogenous culture, individuals and organizations will have to seek continuous improvement and the development of growth mindsets.

There is a reason organizations are referred to as companies. “Company” is a noun referring to the fact or condition of being with another or others, especially in a way that provides friendship and enjoyment. A company is a network of individuals seeking to be in the company of others while doing work that gives them purpose, builds their strengths, and feeds and nourishes their whole selves. In 2021, the most successful organizations will be able to run the marathon, maintaining and sustaining focus, commitment and investment in DEI journeys over time by enabling their humans, first and foremost.

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