5 Powerful Ways to Take REAL Action on DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion)

By Center for Creative Leadership

People need new ways to think about and talk about diversity. Leaders need new skills to enable equity and inclusion in the workplace. And organizations need scalable ways to ensure that their diversity and inclusion initiatives avoid common mistakes and are solid and sustainable.

At CCL, we use our proprietary REAL framework to help companies, communities, and schools understand the dynamics of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)in the workplace, in their particular organization and context — and to identify specific actions they can take to help them drive desired progress.

A 4-Step Framework for Action on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: REAL™

We create leadership solutions using our REAL framework to shift mindsets, behaviors, and practices towards more equitable and inclusive leadership for individuals, teams, and organizations. Specifically, we believe implementing the REAL framework is a 4-step process:

  1. Reveal relevant opportunities.
  2. Elevate equity.
  3. Activate diversity.
  4. Lead inclusively.

1. Reveal relevant opportunities. The first step is about discovery — not setting an agenda or duplicating diversity initiatives that seemed effective in other organizations. It involves gaining awareness of the types of diversity within and across groups, and the context in which diversity, equity, and inclusion play out for individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole.

In order to set a direction, create alignment, and generate commitment to DEI in the workplace or in other types of organizations, top leaders should take the first steps: articulate their individual and collective perspective, identity, values, and culture; consider how experiences of power and privilege may affect their approach and effectiveness — and that of others; and evaluate how dynamics of DEI affect their marketplace and their business strategy.

By exploring their specific context, senior leaders can engage others in the organization to identify the most relevant opportunities for change and then select 2-3 strategic actions that will drive the desired results.

2. Elevate equity. When discussing diversity initiatives in the workplace or in other organizations, many professionals reference the term DEI, which stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. At CCL, we recognize this terminology, but prefer to shift the order to EDI, placing equity before diversity and inclusion — for a reason. You may see us use the terms interchangeably; however, our belief is that without equity, efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are laudable, but not sustainable. To enact equity is to provide all people with fair opportunities to attain their full potential.

To make progress on DEI, senior leaders first need to acknowledge societal inequities and recognize that, unintentionally, their organization isn’t a level playing field.

People enter the world of work and advance through their careers with unevenness of advantage, opportunity, privilege, and power — so what is “fair opportunity” is not the same for everyone. When organizational leaders express their motivation, as well as barriers, for countering inequity, set clear goals toward greater equity, and then take action, they signal a commitment that becomes the foundation of the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

3. Activate diversity. Diversity is the collective of differences and similarities that includes individual and organizational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, and behaviors.

Activating that diversity is a process that involves recognizing and engaging differences within the employee and customer base. It equips managers and teams to explore the impact of diversity on perspectives, assumptions, and approaches, and identify ways to enhance the contribution of all.

And, it includes defining expectations or metrics and setting clear goals.

4. Lead inclusively. Inclusion requires active, intentional, and ongoing efforts to promote the full participation and sense of belonging of every employee, customer, and strategic partner. It involves policies and practices, but also the ability to envision and enact new ways of leading.

Across levels and functions, leaders need to learn what is now required, interpreting inclusive leadership for their various groups or for different roles. They also need tools and support as they improve their ability to identify and mitigate bias, respect differences, build empathetic relationships, foster allyship, manage conflict, and bring out the best in others.

5 Powerful Ways to Take REAL Action on Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace

Here are 5 powerful ways some of our clients are taking action to infuse their leadership and culture with the mindset, skillset, and tools needed to build greater equity, and then diversity and inclusion:

1. Change the conversation. The inability to have meaningful conversations contributes significantly to the unproductive relationships that can sometimes develop across diversity divides. To work with those whose background and perspective is vastly different, or whose role or leadership style is at odds, people at every organizational level need to have effective conversations.

Foster direct conversations about EDI to break down silos and communication barriers. Our Better Conversations Every Day™ program, for example, teaches leaders of all levels and roles in the organization how to hold a coaching conversation.

After all, better culture starts with better conversations, so by improving the quality of your organization’s everyday conversations, you’ll develop a culture of increased openness, respect for differences, and understanding — which will fuel better collaboration, more innovation, and greater effectiveness.

2. Map network connections across boundaries. Network analysis is one powerful tool to help people understand how they are inadvertently creating inequity or preventing the inclusion of diverse people and perspectives. Take a network perspective by conducting a network analysis, beginning with customized surveys or data collection through other mechanisms such as email traffic that are then used to map patterns of relationship and interactions that are often hidden.

The results typically reveal over-reliance on a few people or groups, as well as those who are isolated or who have valuable or relevant expertise, perspective, or connections that are underutilized.

Through an EDI perspective, leaders can see how unintentional bias is built into their networks and the way that creates limitations for them and their teams. Using this information, they can identify additional people or groups they are not accessing, set goals to diversify their network, and take steps to engage others and build connections across organizational silos. Also, make sure your team understands why they should collaborate across boundaries.

3. Boost coaching, mentoring, and sponsoring. Often due to unconscious bias or systems of power in organizations, people who are not “like” their manager or the organization’s dominant leader type don’t have equitable access to the leaders who can steer them toward valuable experiences and support them through the inevitable challenges. As a result, they see their career progress stall.

Organizations can counter this subtle bias by implementing a coaching culture and developing the coaching skills of their employees, and by creating a network of champions to enable the development, contributions, and career growth of all employees.

  • Managers can ensure all their direct reports are heard, given feedback, provided support, and offered opportunities.
  • Mentors can provide guidance, feedback, and support, whether around a specific need or for ongoing development.
  • Sponsors can be effective advocates who actively work to advance the career of their “sponsoree.”

4. Analyze talent practices. Talent processes reflect and create norms and can be levers for system-wide change. Review systems and practices related to recruiting, hiring, and promoting talent. Audit compensation data. Examine employee development practices, asking tough questions about access to needed assessment, challenge, and support:

  • Who has access to on-the-job learning and key assignments?
  • Who is tapped for training or leadership experiences?
  • Who is receiving coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship?
  • What assumptions are being made about individuals’ current capability and future potential?
  • Are different standards applied to some people or groups?

Organizations should also help managers and teams evaluate the practices and policies that create the structures for how work gets done and shape the employee experience — and look for ways that unconscious bias creeps in. Are there ways to move beyond bias at your organization? Consider unspoken norms, scheduling, networking opportunities, and work arrangements — all potential areas for rethinking and improvement.

5. Go deeper on identity. The concept of social identity can help people understand similarities and differences and their impact on the workplace. Social identity comprises the parts of a person’s identity that come from belonging to groups, including (but not limited to) age, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, education, physical ability, and socioeconomic status. It fuels our distinct perspective and unique value, and often defines sources of power and privilege.

Much of inequity is driven by long-established structures, unconscious assumptions, and experiences tied to social identity.

Through communication, training, and conversation, people can learn to recognize how their own social identity subtly influences the way they interact with others or the biases they unconsciously hold. They can also learn and consider how the dynamics of social identity may be shaping others’ experiences. By defining diversity through a lens of social identity, all employees have a way to put themselves into a discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Many companies are looking for new, more effective ways to attract, retain, engage, and enable a diverse workforce. By identifying a few key actions based on their context and needs, organizational leaders can fast-forward positive, more equitable outcomes and begin to fully see, appreciate, and engage all their talent.

By MIT Sloan CDO