Let’s face the facts: diversity and inclusion (D&I) practitioners need other people’s active support in order to have lasting impact. But, sometimes we forget just how much we need others to get our work done. We must create strategic partnerships among a variety of stakeholders if we’re going to make meaningful change. Success requires buy-in from the following groups:
Leadership—C-suite, high-level managers, and organizational boards—are crucial for creating cultural shifts within organizations. These might not be the first people you engage, but they are the most important. You’ll need enthusiastic official endorsement of D&I activities and the designation of appropriate resources to see them through.
Managers are often at the front lines of D&I implementation. They respond to staff who might be uncomfortable with changes and are responsible for ensuring those changes occur. Sometimes, it’s the managers themselves who are asked to make radical changes in mindset and behavior.
Clients and customers may include other organizations, partners, donors or individual consumers. As these groups become aware of D&I initiatives, it’s the diversity practitioner’s responsibility to anticipate resistance, heading it off with appropriate information and opportunities for engagement.
Handling so many stakeholders can feel like an unwieldy challenge, but here are the secrets to overcoming confusion and avoiding execution mistakes that keep people from supporting D&I initiatives.
#1 Talk business.
A strong business case carries a lot of weight with stakeholders of all categories. Whether an organization is corporate or nonprofit, all stakeholders need to understand how D&I will help achieve its stated mission and goals. Thankfully, a solid body of research shows the many ways in which diversity is a competitive advantage. Everything from bottom-line growth to talent retention has been shown to directly result from D&I initiatives. The available data will be your friend in making this argument.
#2 Redefine leadership.
Inclusiveness is more than a goal or an activity. You can make great strides by helping managers and C-suite leaders understand that what inclusiveness demands is actually a mindset and skillset that fosters strong, effective leadership. Inclusive-minded people develop skills that are becoming the hallmarks of leadership, such as collaboration, cognizance of bias, cultural intelligence and managing diverse teams.
Framing inclusion as a leadership competency at all levels will help achieve buy-in from managers or career-focused individuals who might see D&I efforts as a potential distraction. Rather, inclusive leadership opens the door to upward mobility or valuable new skills for continued success in changing work environments.
#3 Don’t get personal.
Even as we work to create space for individuality and openness about the challenges specific groups face, it’s best to avoid creating tension by getting too personal. The trick is to acknowledge first-hand experiences while keeping the focus on workplace issues, creating an action plan that people can support and participate in.
Also, emphasize overall cultural competence. This will give people a heightened level of intelligence about others and the vocabulary to help them understand and advocate for a group or an inclusion practice—without focusing on individual’s personal feelings.
#4 Be honest.
Majority group members used to holding much power and privilege can feel attacked or left out when D&I initiatives are presented as priorities. At the same time, people of color and others can feel significant anxiety when, after working to diminish their difference, a diversity initiative now puts it front and center.
Be honest. All groups are less likely to resist D&I initiatives when these emotions are acknowledged openly. Admit that dominant groups might experience more competition when access and opportunity are spread equitably, and recognize underrepresented groups’ feelings of vulnerability. Finally, be frank about the fact that D&I is not just about either group—it’s about a better workplace for everyone.
#5 Activate (cheer)leaders.
Your leadership team should be as diverse and inclusive as possible. This isn’t only about optics: You’ll get needed input from people who see every aspect of the picture, from expenses to how distinct groups might be impacted by D&I initiatives.
To retain the best cheerleaders, be clear about what you need from each person, and the importance of their unique role or skillset. Explain how deliverables will be defined and measured, so everybody has a clear understanding of success. Don’t assume that people will take on extra work because they appear to identify with a particular identity group. Your best champions might not be who you think.
In the best-case scenario, you’ll have a cadre of other people influenced by your work, owning the message for themselves, and helping to execute. They’ll serve as the ambassadors who bring others along. Winning that level of buy-in can be difficult, but it is the responsibility of D&I leaders to help others understand the importance of the work and the roles everyone can play in moving it forward.