If You Want Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Success, Approach it like Learning a Language
Byline: Written by Vinciane de Pape, DEI Advisory Lead
I regularly talk to people who want to build more inclusive workplaces in my job at Bloom. These conversations go wonderfully until we talk about activities. That’s when I hear the dreaded “Can we do this in a one-hour session?” question. I get why leaders ask for an hour session. It’s the standard ‘long’ meeting in the corporate world that’s meant for big tasks. However, addressing DEI challenges needs a different approach. Instead of thinking about it like a corporate problem to solve, approach it like learning a language. It takes time, and there are awkward moments, but those are actually good things. Let’s get into it.
You can’t productivity-hack your way to inclusion
The startup and corporate world is full of productivity hacks: how to use AI to cut down on emails, how to optimize meetings, and how to streamline processes. Hacks like these are great for siloed issues with a clearly defined beginning and end. A problem occurs, or a need arises, people plan out the action items, then implement them. Boom, done. Onto the next thing. You can hack any part of this process: you can identify problems more efficiently; you can speed up the solution identification process with a new process; and you can certainly hack the building of a solution with new and novel tools.
Unfortunately, when DEI problems are put through this siloed solution model, it ends up largely being performative. Acknowledgement of the problem becomes a big, often dramatic statement of how people need to “do better.” Then people start looking for a one-hour session to solve the problem of “doing betting”, get nowhere, and wonder why.
The real process of DEI work
Most people’s intentions around DEI are good. People ask me about one-hour sessions not because they are being flippant but because they want to solve the problem quickly for those affected. But if you want to address deep issues, here’s the real approach you need to take: learning slowly. We often say at Bloom that this is journey work, not destination work. Here’s what this looks like in practice:
- Evaluate the organization’s current efforts. Critically examine where your company is at on its learning journey. What work have you done to date? Which gaps need to be filled? This will inform your starting point and which subsequent action items make sense for your team.
- Meet people where they are at on their learning journey. Often, organizations dive right into unconscious bias training and anti-racism training without building a solid foundation and shared language around key concepts like identity, intersectionality, privilege, and oppression.
- Build off learned competencies. Once your organization has put in the time and intention to build a solid foundation, then you can work on diving deeper into more context-specific topics like building more inclusive and equitable workplace practices, processes, and procedures.
- Practice and iterate. This is where the real magic happens! There is no one-size-fits-all solution to DEI, and each organization will have different needs and varying experiences. Maintaining open communication and consistently gathering feedback from your team will allow you to make evolutions to continue learning and moving in the right direction.
In this way, this process is more like learning a language than solving a one-off problem
Many of us are familiar with the fun (and frustration!) of learning a new language through tools like Duolingo or Babbel. Both apps start with a self-assessment. How fluent are you in this language? Are you a total newbie or just looking to brush up on existing skills? This will inform where your learning journey starts. The initial modules begin with very basic vocabulary while introducing spelling and pronunciation before building up to more complex phrases, eventually providing the tools and confidence to speak conversationally. But even skilled language learners will tell you that the only way to maintain fluency is to practice constantly.
The learning journey never ends.
The good news is that just like learning a language, continuing to deepen your understanding of anti-oppressive workplace systems actually gets easier with practice because you are building your baseline understanding more and more over time.
Action is the currency you spend on patience
Knowing DEI work takes time, it’s tempting for leaders to ask for patience from their teams and leave it at that. But it needs to go beyond that. Patience is a withdrawal of your team’s trust. Every time you ask for patience, you ask your staff to believe that you will change. The way to refill that metaphorical bank account is with action. When leaders make a public statement, that’s the first deposit into the shared ‘team trust’ account. The next deposit comes when leaders bring in competent people to lead DEI training and initiatives. And then again when they show up to training sessions and actively take part in the conversation.
A similar trend appears in language learning. Most people are willing to cut you some slack if it’s evident that you’re trying your best and learning. But if you just talk to them in your native language and wonder why they don’t get it, you can’t be surprised if they have little patience for you.
Different companies (and leaders) may need to take different actions depending on circumstances and organizational context. That’s where an in-house DEI leader or a DEI consultant can help push forward change and evolution. The key is to resist the urge to rush a ‘solution’ and instead spend time uncovering where your DEI opportunities are and working to upskill those competencies. When you do this, your ask for patience will be more respected because you’re showing that you genuinely are doing foundational work and need time to continue learning.
Learning a new language together
The only ‘hack’ in the DEI world is a willingness to learn and follow a realistic (and often non-linear) process. At the start, this might feel uncomfortable. However, the more you learn, the easier and more comfortable you will get. Once you have that small base of knowledge and common understanding, suddenly you can pick up concepts more quickly than you ever thought possible and grasp action items immediately. That’s when you’ll know you’re ready to continue moving forward.
One more thing — At Bloom, we support leaders who aren’t ready to hire a full-time DEI employee but need the support on an interim basis. We offer fractional DEI strategy support along with our signature context-specific DEI and anti-oppressive workplace training, Bloom Academy. Interested in learning more? Get in contact with us here.