What’s Wrong With You?

The idea that you should look at yourself first to find a solution to a problem is not novel. Entire industries have been built around the business of fixing your own issues. But there’s an important codicil to all that self-improvement: It requires us to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that something needs work.

The idea that diversity and inclusion would benefit if its champions were more self-aware came up in many of the sessions I attended in April at the 25th annual Multicultural Forum on Workplace Diversity (MCF) in Minneapolis, and with good reason.

Several diversity executives, including Tyronne Stoudemire from Mercer and Howard Ross from Cook Ross, pointed out that more money and resources have been spent recently than in the past 25 or so years of diversity work, yet we don’t have much to show for the effort. We are still having many of the same conversations about the same problems.

While there has been some progress and success to celebrate, by and large things seem to be in stasis. Diversity executives are wearing themselves out treading the same ground and fighting the same battles, moving two steps forward only to be forced a step back. Why?

Don’t we know by now that diversity is about more than just being equitable and fair and doing the work because it is the nice and right thing to do? I’d say yes. Don’t we know by now there is a measurable business case that provides ample reason to promote diversity and inclusion? Again, yes. Don’t people know that racism, gender discrimination, bias against LGBT employees and those with disabilities prevents these often highly skilled groups from inhabiting a useful place in the workforce? Yes, yes and yes.

Yet many companies are strategically and programmatically stalled. Diversity fatigue has set in like gangrene in some, and others are just going through the motions so as not to appear unaware or uncaring lest they inspire an avalanche of ill will via social media.

The problem is we’re going about this the wrong way.

Some diversity executives are going into their companies armed for a battle and they’re lobbying for time and money to fix what ills the place. They want to ensure all people know when their actions and practices may be motivated by unconscious bias. They want everyone to know when established processes exclude worthy candidates who by accident of birth don’t fit the mold. They want to ensure their companies appeal to the best available talent in the marketplace — an increasingly diverse group.

But the desire to work that strategic diversity management magic is coming from a negative place: We need to fix you. In other words, there is an organizational problem and you are the cause.

It’s like being the bad kid the teacher calls out in front of everyone. Only it’s worse because everyone involved is an adult — an adult who works, pays bills, sacrifices and is continually attempting to balance the many competing demands of his or her own life. Few have the patience or desire to listen to how their actions may be unfair, wrong or otherwise undesirable.

Let’s try some positivity instead. I personally do not respond well when someone points out my mistakes, even when I know I made them. Few people do. It inspires defensiveness and can make the parties involved want to ignore the whole thing like it never existed. It does not inspire feelings of good will or a desire to expend energy on an idea we may not see as practical or applicable.

Leslie Traub and Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale of Cook Ross did a session at the MCF on authentic gender leadership, and part of what made it effective is that both women acknowledged they have flaws. They poked fun at themselves even as they dropped pearls of wisdom on how attendees can improve the female representation at the top.

Maybe that’s what diversity executives have to do to get and keep folks’ attention — acknowledge their foibles and the problems with diversity practice. Once people see that wagging finger pointed in instead of out, they might be inspired to do the same. Then we can all move forward together.