Take the Diversity Challenge

We have made many advances in the diversity and inclusion arena. However, we still have a ways to go—and that requires a paradigm shift.

Over the past three decades, diversity and inclusion work has gone from the fringe to the mainstream. At this point, an overwhelming majority of companies have some kind of diversity and inclusion efforts, ranging from fully staffed departments to people given functional accountability as part of their larger responsibilities. Millions of employees have participated in diversity training programs. Diversity conferences abound. Hundreds of books have tackled the subject, as have numerous Oprah episodes. It is reasonable to ask, is it making a difference?

The metrics, both in society as a whole and within organizations, do not bode well. Even though, by many measures of equality, progress has clearly been made over the past 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, the statistics over the past decade or so indicate a leveling off, or even a backsliding, of progress. For example, according to the Government Accounting Office, the gap between women’s salaries and men’s is closing at a glacial pace. At the present rate, 
equity will not be achieved until the 22nd century. Meanwhile, women and people of color are making slow progress in rising into the most senior leadership positions. There are currently only 23 women and 23 people of color among Fortune 500 CEOs. Considering the disparities between dominant and nondominant groups in health care, unemployment, incarceration rates, housing, and virtually every other major area, the statistics are sobering. Decades of movement? Yes. But more recently, there’s been a leveling off of growth.

And of course, acts of intolerance continue to make the headlines, which affects the mood and mindset that people bring to work. Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, is recorded making racist comments. Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher under scrutiny for illegally using parkland to graze cattle, adds to his notoriety by making comments glorifying slavery. Robert Copeland, a New Hampshire police commissioner, unapologetically uses the “N-word” in referring to the president of the United States. Phil Robertson, the scion of the Duck Dynasty clan, makes derogatory comments about gays and African Americans. The owner of the Washington, DC, National Football League team refuses to entertain the notion of changing the team name from a racist slur against Native American people. State legislatures around the country pass highly restrictive anti-immigration covenants. Social media explodes with vile comments in response to a Cheerios commercial featuring a mixed-race child and an Indian American Miss America. And the list goes on.

While these high-profile examples that dominate the media and the blogosphere are indicative of our struggle with diversity and inclusion and should be aired—the “noise” that they create actually may serve to distract from the much deeper and more important work that still needs to be done around diversity and inclusion issues: the systemic, everyday biases that keep people in nondominant groups from being included fully in the daily lives of their organizations.

After all of these years, activities, and efforts, why does the conversation seem to be stalling? It is easy enough to blame “resisters,” and there are certainly plenty of those, but isn’t it also fair to inquire whether the diversity professionals need to try some new approaches?

For years, the conversation about diversity and inclusion has been based on several paradigms that need to be shifted in order to move the needle significantly. The predominant one is the “good person/bad person” paradigm that has permeated the conversation. It is important to understand where this approach came from. Generations—long suffering from the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other like beliefs—have created an ongoing conversational network of contention that consistently pits “them” against “us,” and in doing so avoids dealing with a system that is bigger than either “side.”

Although the emotional underpinnings of this paradigm are understandable, it offers little relief from the core systemic issues that anchor the current reality. The push for more diversity in hiring, for example, can have a negative impact on inclusion when it is not conducted in an appropriate way. Neurocognitive research confirms that when differences between people are emphasized, the empathy centers of the brain are less active. As a result, if people feel forced to bring in people without being adequately prepared or understanding the reasons, they may become more shut down and less inclusive. It is necessary to create some basic shifts in the way diversity and inclusion are approached in order to create new possibilities.

New Strategies for a New Era
It is important to recognize that the conversation has expanded well beyond the limited perspectives of advocacy. In a global economy and within organizations in which globalism has increased the diversity of employee groups dramatically, simply focusing on age-old strategies will no longer transform the nature of organizational life. Like a seesaw, they may produce short-term results only to be brought down by the corresponding backlash against those very same results.

Strategies designed to “fix” people or push them to “get it” can often backfire because they fundamentally undermine the sense of self and leave people feeling judged and diminished. Similarly, strategies that work to strengthen a disenfranchised group without also working with the dominant group to generate support and alignment can only offer limited success. Therefore, strategies that focus on the development of cultural competency can create a greater sense of connectivity and inclusion because they reinforce that all people have distinct cultural lenses that influence their perception and behavior.

We also need to cultivate a deeper understanding of what neurocognitive science is now teaching us about the subconscious mind and how it impacts the way people form biases. Our brains seemed to be designed to quickly sort those whom we encounter into either “friend” or “foe.” From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense. Thousands of years ago, people had to quickly determine whether the people they met at the 
watering hole were “them” or “us.” The development of that rapid internal danger detector was crucial to safety and survival.

More than 1,000 studies in the past 10 years have confirmed that people have biases in virtually every dimension of human identity. More importantly, the finding of this research is clear: Everyone has these biases, and overwhelmingly they are subconscious.

This science fundamentally changes the way diversity must be implemented. In studying workplace practices, the research shows that a tremendously high percentage of workplace decisions that deferentially impact one group of people versus another are the result of these subconscious biases—biases that most of us hold. However, oftentimes a preponderance of diversity efforts focus on the smaller percentage of people who consciously discriminate. This dissonance can create greater defensiveness on the part of people who are “accused” of bias when they don’t even realize that their actions are being directed by it.

This new understanding calls for different strategies on the part of diversity practitioners. As recognition of subconscious bias has proliferated in the diversity field, many practitioners are introducing work around combating it within corporate systems. Unfortunately, however, it is often presented through the lens of the old “good person/bad person” paradigm. In other words, it becomes just another accusation that can leave people—and, in this case, many more people—feeling defensive instead of open and engaged. Making it clear that bias is common to everyone enables people to connect universally and encourages inclusion.

The good news is that while it may not be possible to eliminate bias, there appear to be ways to identify and navigate it. These strategies can help people reduce the impact of bias on their decision making.


1. Recognize and accept that you have biases.

Guilt and shame do not transform behavior. Responsibility does. Carl Jung said, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” Once people accept that they have biases, they can begin to learn to navigate them in ways that mitigate their impact.

2. Develop the capacity to observe yourself in action.

Learning to watch oneself in action can be helpful in mitigating the impact of bias. Are there patterns of people or situations that trigger a reaction? Do certain people trigger a reaction more than others?

3. Practice “constructive uncertainty.”
Most business cultures tend to operate on urgency, which can force people to make quick decisions rather than thoughtful ones. Learning to slow down decision making, especially when it involves people decisions, can help reduce the impact of bias.

4. Explore awkwardness and discomfort.
The greatest opportunities to explore biases occur when they are causing discomfort. And yet those can be the times when people retreat to feel safer rather than engaging. Learning to develop strategies for constructively engaging at times like this can fuel inclusion.

5. Expose people to exemplars from groups that are especially prone to bias.
Research shows that one of the most effective ways to subtly reduce biases against a particular group is to expose people to positive role models from that group. That is why stories shared during Black History Month and Latino Heritage Month, for example, are still valuable. However, it is far more valuable to share images and references on a daily basis.

6. Establish ways to give and receive feedback.
Creating a safe space for sharing feedback is critically important. Because nobody is aware of all of his or her biases, having an environment in which people can be honest with one another and establishing clear metrics that can provide feedback can help build inclusiveness.

7. Take a systems approach to inclusion work.

All too often, diversity work has been characterized by a series of events, such as diversity training programs, sponsored diversity get-togethers, or international food day in the cafeteria. Activities like these are helpful as part of an overall effort, but on their own, they will not transform the culture of the organization into an inclusive one.

That can only happen when every part of the organization’s systems and structures is reviewed. How are people recruited, interviewed, and brought into the system? How are job assignments and promotions handled? Who gets opportunities for coaching, mentoring, training, and development? What metrics are we measuring? How is more consciousness embedded into the talent management system? How are interactions with clients or customers handled? These questions and others need to be asked. It is also possible to develop performance support and decision tools in each of these areas to assist people in developing more consciousness. However, this takes focus, time, and commitment—and full company leadership buy-in.
Inclusion can be systematically developed, but it will take a new kind of thinking to take organizations to the next level. As Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” DW

Howard J. Ross is the founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross Inc. and the author of Reinventing Diversity and Everyday Bias.

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