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If your D&I initiative is making you uncomfortable, it’s working

One D&I evangelist’s take on the natural nuances of D&I, and how to grow through the uncomfortable and uncertain.

Are you passionate about leading diversity and inclusion (D&I) conversations in your organization? Or, are you unsure where to even begin? Maybe you’ve attempted to kick off those conversations in the past, but for one reason or another those conversations petered out, raised too many eyebrows, or got a little too uncomfortable.

In reality, we know that companies that have those conversations, and go beyond to practice and act on them, outperform. While companies that opt out of making D&I a part of their company dialogue are 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability.

So why are serious D&I conversations so challenging to kickoff—and sometimes even more challenging to sustain? Why are they so often regarded as being steeped in the abstract and intangible, rather than being viewed as something absolute and actionable? And why do so many D&I professionals, HR leaders, and employees alike struggle to get real D&I conversations to materialize?

One answer: discomfort. 

Diversity and inclusion are naturally uncomfortable and come with a degree of uncertainty. And it’s no surprise—we’re talking about humanity, and challenging our own perspectives and personal narratives. It’s not just about thinking differently as individuals, but as an organization. So, if your D&I initiative is making you uncomfortable—it’s working.

Here are some different kinds of completely natural discomfort or awkwardness you might encounter—or have already encountered—and some ways to navigate, understand, and grow through the discomfort.

What kind of uncomfortable?

A knee jerk reaction

At its core, D&I is about self-awareness. And that can get uncomfortable. Especially when conversations challenge people to introspect and examine their own biases and personal beliefs. There is a natural inclination to want to defend or deflect, and that’s okay—these sort of knee jerk reactions are a part of the process. 

Because everyone is at a different place in their own journey, the extent of those knee jerk reactions vary. However, regardless of degree, overcoming those differences means choosing empathy. If you're further along in your journey, what did it feel like when you just started out? And if you're just starting off, ask what helped people who are further along? While self-awareness is at the core of D&I, that doesn’t mean we have to go it alone.

Fear

For those new to D&I conversations it might feel like being a fish out of water. There is fear in the unknown, fear around asking questions—and an insecurity that you might say “the thing” incorrectly, or use the wrong terminology. 

Or, maybe in a discussion around race and gender, you, as a woman of color, admit that within your own company you’ve been a victim of bias or exclusion. Being vulnerable, open, and honest about something like that feels uncomfortable—risky, even.

Leaders need to understand and make concerted efforts to overcome the fact that people aren’t going to raise questions, make suggestions, or challenge the status quo if they sense there is any chance of fallout. Leaders need to set the example: they need to be fearlessly vulnerable, accepting of feedback, and they need to demonstrate, not just advocate for change.

Even if there are behaviors, mindsets, and cultural glitches that need to be corrected—people will likely err on the side of fear and avoidance, because speaking up is understandably uncomfortable. By creating a psychologically safe environment and demonstrating change, “speaking up” ceases to look and feel like “speaking out”, or “speaking against”. As leaders we need to lower the preconceived notions and perceptions concerning risk, reprisal, or retribution—we do that through the example we set.

This feels taboo

There might be skepticism regarding what is allowed and what is forbidden to talk about in the workplace. It’s not uncommon for a lot of people to believe the workplace is strictly for tasks, job responsibilities, and what’s right in front of them: the work.

“Well if we don’t talk about it, it’s not an issue.” WRONG. When organizations avoid these critical conversations, they’re still impacting and influencing the workplace—whether we acknowledge them or not. Admittedly, these conversations can feel overwhelming and enormous, but they only appear that way on the surface. The best way to remove the taboo, is start small and think about what’s actionable, today. 

Practice eventually makes perfect, but in the immediate sense practice helps normalize those conversations—and moves people towards accepting and becoming more willing to participate. What may seem like small or insignificant steps can add up and deliver tangible results—and in some cases, some change is better than none at all.

The why  is unclear

Having a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture is too often viewed as being coincidental—or as something that happens by accident. Rather than being an intentional business strategy with plans, actions, and measurable goals. 

When you ask people to change how they work, when you challenge their thinking—when you advocate for change without the why, people get uncomfortable and are likely to resist.

Kicking off and leading D&I initiatives requires the why. There needs to be broad awareness and understanding of why change is necessary and important. And not just why, but how are these initiatives going to be measured?—and how does inclusion benefit everyone, not just the marginalized people? And what will success look like?

Set goals, be intentional and explicit: If the goal is to increase senior-level diversity by 30% over the next 3 years, make that known; if the intent is to foster greater resilience, cohesion, and inclusion, say exactly that. And if the purpose is to attract young, diverse top-talent, say so. If you cannot precisely define and explain the why to your D&I initiative, then you might need to head back to the drawing board.

These conversations aren’t happening, at all

And finally, maybe there is discomfort around D&I conversations because they’re not happening, at all. Maybe there’s buzz going around D&I topics, an unaddressed desire for those conversations to materialize formally and officially, but you simply don’t know where to start.

But, what if those concerns have been voiced—a specific plan of action proposed—but due to discomfort with change and the uncertainty that accompanies those conversations, they never begin? 

Truthfully, if D&I conversations are not introduced tactfully, or if they’re introduced hastily, they can cause more pain and harm. When creating the initial space for these kinds of conversations, they need to be curbed with the expectation that D&I is not “all or nothing”; and that D&I is not a singular conversation, but lots of conversations. 

Embrace what’s uncomfortable

If you're uncomfortable that D&I conversations aren’t mainstream in your organization, if you're uncomfortable because they’re not materializing fast enough, or if you're uncomfortable with resistance and reluctance—don’t grow discouraged, don’t make it personal, and keep trying to have those conversations. 

This is the way change begins, it's messy and may not always feel like progress at first. Through patience, consistency—and keeping your ears and eyes open to what people are saying, or even not saying, change is possible. Diversity and inclusion conversations are not always easy, but they are always worth it—through discomfort people thrive, cultures bloom, and bottom lines grow.