There has been a lot written and said about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. Like most “soft” skills, the goal is to steer the culture of an organization toward a more desired set of complex and nuanced behaviors. And, similar to emotional intelligence (EQ) and other behavioral challenges, change must be plotted over a longer time period than tactical training initiatives.

Moving the Needle

Some people just don’t see what all the “hoopla” is about, and aren’t quite sure why it’s worth making such a fuss about inclusion. What’s the big deal, right?

When you talk directly to people who don’t see the importance of DEI, you start to understand what this group needs to be able to move forward in their growth and development. For instance, I recently facilitated a series of DEI focus groups for a large global organization, and I heard one person explain that he didn’t think much needed to be done to change the current culture — a work culture that apparently was working just fine for him. Granted, the organization in which he works does a pretty good job already at promoting a culture of acceptance, so he wasn’t turning a blind eye to an ugly situation. But his comment made me acutely aware of why those who don’t see the importance of DEI are such a critical group of people to reach. By analyzing the performance environment, I could see there is still so much progress yet to be made at even a good company with a strong DEI history.

Addressing the “Why”

30 years after I first heard the DEI message in my own professional career, the most important question to be addressed is still, “why?” Why is this a business problem? And, why should I care? If you think about it for a moment from a performance improvement lens, the question isn’t much different from other issues we address as corporate learning and development (L&D) professionals.

In a similar manner, we must explain to leaders why empathy is important. And we must convince work groups of why collaboration brings forth better ideas. As my esteemed (and brilliant) teacher, Dale Brethower, explained to me roughly 40 years ago, we need to teach people why before teaching them what they need to do and then finally how to do it.

As I listened to the many stories that were shared over the course of my career — and those that people offered during my recent project — I realized it was the crushing blows of things that have happened to people… that was what made the biggest impact on me. It’s vicarious learning. We learn from direct experience and also through accounts of other people’s experiences. Nobody ever told me that my opinion didn’t matter because I’m a woman (because I’m a man). So, when I learn about the stories from other people’s lived experience, I can understand something that erodes organizational performance even though it didn’t happen to me. Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. It’s real once we understand why it’s important.

The “How” and “What”

Once you’ve been opened up to the reasons why DEI has a big impact on the business, you can start to learn how it happens and what it takes to overcome bias. Unconscious bias is a fascinating explanation of how people see things — or sometimes fail to see things — that are right in front of them. You can begin the journey of learning about other cultures. For example, you could explore the celebration of Ramadan, Diwali, Nowruz and other festive celebrations not associated with Western culture. There are a lot of things to learn about people who are different from you. But you can’t learn until you accept the premise that you need to learn.

As learning professionals know, we have plenty of new tools to use once we are ready to teach people what we expect them to do in support of a DEI culture. We can be effective at helping people learn using an expanded playbook that includes videos, simulations, apps and even virtual reality (VR). (Want to find out what global holidays are coming up in the next few weeks? There’s an app for that!)

So, if you really want to have an impact on the company culture, it helps to understand mindset. Do employees see structural inequality, or do they see advantage in maintaining the status quo? Like every soft skill, there is a lot to learn when it comes to DEI once you are ready and willing.