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Addressing Resistance to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

By: Dr. Rohini Anand, Senior Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisor, Rohini Anand LLC

Each leader holds a kind of ecosystem of beliefs— conscious and unconscious—around issues at the heart of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It’s important for leaders to tease them out in order to develop a responsive approach that stirs their growth and transformation. 

It is well established that commitment and role-modeling by senior-most leaders is critical to embedding and sustaining a culture that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive so that all employees are valued and have rewarding career trajectories. To be genuinely passionate about their commitment, leaders have to internalize the importance of DEI to the organization and to them personally. This takes deep work of perspective shifting. Not all leaders seek out transformational experiences that prompt the necessary introspection. My colleagues often share that they struggle with leaders who are resistant to the value of DEI. 

As we worked to advance DEI globally at Sodexo, I found that one of the first and most important steps was to secure support from country leaders. The challenge was that they were at different starting points and operating in different cultural realities with varying degrees of resistance. In order to dismantle unconscious biases, leaders need to first be aware of their ecosystem of beliefs as it relates to DEI. 

Common Beliefs and Mindsets That Impact a Leader’s Approach to DEI

Some common beliefs and perspectives can impact how a person sees diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Why are a person’s beliefs important? Because beliefs contribute to a person’s worldview, predispose them to take certain actions, and, ultimately, influence results. Progress in creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations starts with how people think, how people understand the world, their point of view. Lasting change requires a shift of heart and mind, a shift in thinking and perspective. When leaders become aware of their beliefs, they are more able to seek out disruptive experiences to expand their world view on DEI. They can be supported by DEI colleagues who can design targeted experiences to shift or expand the leader’smindset on these DEI topics. 

The following common mindsets related to diversity and inclusion can give us insight into a leader’s thinking. 

  1. Deny Systemic Barriers Acknowledge Systemic Barriers

Leaders who dismiss systemic barriers believe that we have a level playing field for all and that the “cream rises to the top.” Such leaders might think, believe, or say, “I don’t see color as we are all equal with equal chances of succeeding ifwe just work hard.” They make excuses such as “We cannot find any qualified . . .” or “Women are leaving because they have little children.” 

Those who acknowledge barriers that impede advancement of underrepresented populations look for ways to address it in the systems, policies, and behaviors within their organizations. They address gaps by unpacking underlying root causes and harnessing the best of what a diverse workforce can offer. 

  1. Diminishing Returns Mindset Expansive Mindset 

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Leaders with a diminishing returns mindset see a zero-sum game: “They are just hiring women; my career is over because I am a man.” Or “We cannot invest in DEI as we have other business priorities.” Those with an expansive mindset can envision how DEI will help grow the business by targeting specific consumer groups or leveraging diverse talent for innovation. They see the benefit to their employees resulting in innovation and higher productivity for the organization. Typically, a diminishing returns mindset shows up toward the beginning of an organization’s or individual’s DEI journey. If organizations are truly committed to DEI, movement on this scale has to occur early in the process. 

  1. Solve for Today Vision for the Future

Leaders who want to “solve for today” see DEI as an immediate, short-term problem—perhaps a lawsuit or a performative response to the Black Lives Matter movement—that can be solved by hiring a few women or members of other underrepresented groups or by giving isolated charitable contributions. These reactive responses can result in “diversity-washing” without furthering their commitment by addressing inequities more systemically. Leaders with avision for the future see beyond the burning platform du jour. They strategically endeavor to become an industry benchmark for DEI rather than level off at compliance standards. 

  1. Closed Mindset Receptive Mindset 

Leaders with a closed mindset dismiss experiences of others. This might manifest as “I don’t believe that racial profiling occurs,” or “I am not sure what you mean by privilege. I grew up in a poor Caucasian family and made it by pulling myself up by my bootstraps.” Inclusive leaders approach DEI with a sense of humility and a genuine desire to learn—a receptive mindset. They admit to what they don’t know and are open to listening deeply without denying other’s experiences. 

  1. Diverse Talent Is a Risk Diverse Talent Is an Asset

All too often leaders hire people like themselves, where there is an immediate bond, comfort level, and trust. They see talent different from themselves as a “risk” they would rather not take. An inclusive leader sees value in diverse talent, fostering candidates’ potential contributions to innovation, future growth, and ability to reduce groupthink.

Leaders will be at various points on this DEI beliefs continuum. Their place on the continuum may also depend on their belief about an identity group. For example, they may have a receptive mindset on race but still have a journey to develop awareness of LGBTQinclusion. Leaders may also be influenced by their cultural orientation. For example, a leader in a future-focused culture might generally solve for tomorrow, and this would in turn influence their orientation to DEI. 

It is critical that leaders are aware of and intentionally work to dismantle the unconscious biases at play. The first step to addressing these unconscious biases is acknowledging the DEI belief systems, and with that understanding seeking disruptive experiences to expand their mindset to mitigate bias. 

About the Author:

Dr. Rohini Anand is a pioneer and sought after thought leader in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) field and provides DEI advisory services to clients in the public and private sectors. She is a board member of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, WomenLift Health (a Gates Foundation initiative), Aspen Institute’s Family Prosperity Advisory Board, and the NACD’s Center for Inclusive Governance, as well as on the external DEI advisory boards of Charter Communications and Sanofi. Dr. Anand’s expertise spans executive leadership, human capital, global DEI and corporate responsibility. Her global experience, cultural dexterity, extensive network and ability to influence leaders result in a reputation for judgment, integrity, and accountability. Most recently, she was SVP Corporate Responsibility (CR) and Global Chief Diversity Officer for Sodexo, where she reported to the Global CEO and was a member of Sodexo North America’s executive committee. Dr. Anand successfully positioned Sodexo as a global thought leader in DEI and CR. She is the author of Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations.

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