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Bad leadership is failing DE&I initiatives – here's how to avoid the same mistake

Tagger by Sprout Social


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September 19, 2023 | 6 min read

The following article is the first in a series exploring the impact and importance of DEI efforts in marketing, from the importance of creating internal efforts to the delicate work of creating external efforts

Research shows successful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives substantially benefit businesses, from an improved bottom line to a better talent pool. Despite these findings, the 2023 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion report conducted by Development Dimensions International found leadership endorsement of DE&I initiatives has dropped 18% over the past two years.

Blame has been assigned to ineffective training, poorly defined strategies, and claims that DE&I just doesn’t work. But we’re seeing the results of organizations trying to reap the rewards without putting in the work. Making heartfelt statements in reaction to racial tragedies and swapping out logos for a rainbow version on June 1 – those are the easy parts. To see any real benefits from DE&I, you must address the real challenges and mindset shifts it brings.

DEI is uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing

Discomfort is an opportunity for growth. It signals that we are being challenged, and we can either confront and learn from it or avoid it and remain the same. DE&I asks us to challenge our personal and professional worldviews. It asks us to look at who is sitting at the table and who isn’t and then ask, why. It touches on politics, religion, racism, sexism, discrimination – all these hot-button issues we were taught to avoid so we never had to do the work of growing.

There will be resistance

According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 16% of workers believe increasing DE&I efforts is a bad thing, while 28% are neutral. Getting employees on board is critical for DE&I success, but not everyone will buy in, and there’s no way to change that. Downplaying efforts to be more appealing minimizes their effectiveness, while a strong-armed approach results in compliance at best and resentment at worst.

It is key to create an environment that cultivates buy-in by providing support for those who need it and education for those who want it. Genuine growth may be slower, but it will be more resilient in the face of challenges – and you’ll face plenty of those, too.

You’ll have to confront unconscious biases

Everyone has unconscious biases – judgments we don’t even know we’re making. They are shaped by external forces like the media we consume, where we grew up, the beliefs of those who raised us, and our personal experiences. Some biases are harmless inaccuracies, like thinking everyone in New York City has a Brooklyn accent because that’s what you hear in movies, while others can be dangerous assumptions, like thinking people of a particular skin color or religion are more likely to be violent.

It’s important to emphasize that unconscious bias is no one’s fault but everyone’s responsibility. That is why unconscious bias (UB) training is so important. People can’t work towards fixing a problem if they don’t know it exists in the first place. But calling attention to the problem is only the first step.

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that 87% of UB training programs don’t go past the science behind bias, and only 10% provided strategies to help reduce it. DE&I leaders should develop a thorough vetting process for training programs to ensure they are providing employees with quality information and actionable steps.

Everyone is at a different point in their DEI journey

Bringing awareness to systemic disparities is an essential goal in DE&I efforts, but it’s not the only one. People need to be aware of the problem, but people suffering from it also need support. Approaching DE&I with the mindset that everyone in the organization needs to make uniform progress is impractical and takes resources away from those who see the most benefit. DE&I efforts need the resources and flexibility to execute initiatives on multiple fronts.

Mistakes can happen

DE&I is intrinsically tied to matters of personhood and identity. It is going to get messy. If and when mistakes happen, having a plan in place better positions your organization to learn from mistakes and do better next time.

Don’t wait for criticism to go viral before making an apology. Listen to feedback. Take a step back and examine how you arrived at a decision and what biases may have influenced it.

Be accountable. Don’t redact things or try to sweep them under the rug. Admit to it, recognize that you did wrong, and then examine the situation internally to see where you can improve the next time.

DE&I is never done; it’s ongoing

DE&I efforts are not items on a checklist; you will never be able to say, “We did this.” It should always be, “We are continuing to do this.” Think of it like a healthy habit, like working out or brushing your teeth. You can’t continue to see the benefits if you stop doing the work.

Focus on making changes to internal policies and systems over numbers and quotas. Don’t silo DE&I efforts and keep them apart from other aspects of the business. To be successful, they need to permeate through every part of the organization.

There is no easy way to do DE&I. It requires facing hard truths about ourselves and having uncomfortable conversations about our world. But we’ll find so much growth potential if we push through it.

As a leader in the influencer marketing space, Tagger by Sprout Social understands the importance and impact of representation. Social media gives everyone the chance to have a voice, and we are committed to elevating underrepresented voices so everyone has a chance to be heard.

In the next piece, we’ll discuss the strategy and best practices for adding DE&I to your influencer strategy and the important role influencers play in internal and external DE&I efforts.


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