The Cornerstone of DE&I Isn’t Empathy, But Trust

The Cornerstone of DE&I Isn’t Empathy, But Trust

As 2021 unfolds, corporations around the world find themselves in the middle of a new wave of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts. Consumers are itching to see brands reflect a greater focus on social good. Corporate social media accounts and advertising campaigns scramble to reflect greater representation and awareness of diversity. 

Within companies, leaders are approving a range of new DE&I initiatives, from workshops to learning series to DE&I committees. Leading these new efforts are a range of individuals and groups — heads of DE&I, non-DE&I executives, external consulting firms and practitioners, employee resource groups, and volunteer DE&I working groups, councils, and committees. 

As these groups proceed with their initiatives, many are framing their challenges in similar ways: 

  • “We need to build more awareness of difference.” 
  • “We need to help ‘majority’ group members become more understanding of the experiences of ‘minority’ group members.” 
  • “We need something that will give our leaders that lightbulb moment of empathy and understanding.” 

In other words, DE&I is conceptualized as educational work meant to decrease prejudice, decrease harmful interpersonal interactions, and teaches inclusive actions to take. 

This framing isn’t incorrect, but it is incomplete. 

Building more inclusive systems that create inclusive people and behaviors

Incidents of discrimination don’t occur due to one or two bad apples (though these often exist), but because of organizational cultures that enable discrimination, policies that provide weak or nonexistent protections and resources to marginalized groups, processes that “lock in” inequity, and leadership that are often the biggest proponents for maintaining an unequal status quo. 

To make change in this landscape, successful DE&I efforts need to position themselves as change management, not just learning and development. The end goal should not be to make more inclusive people, but more inclusive systems that create inclusive people and inclusive behaviors by default. 

To achieve this, DE&I efforts can’t just focus on cultivating empathy. They need to build and leverage the trust and buy-in needed to change the status quo of culture, policy, process, and practice on a wider scale. 

Encountering trust roadblocks

Why is trust so crucial? Because when it comes to large-scale change, most people — even those who would benefit most from it — are wary of it. 

Managers will resist efforts to constrain their decision-making and complain that any new criteria will add additional work onto their already full plate of responsibilities. They’ll attend mandatory training sessions with their arms crossed, or if attending virtually, with their attention somewhere else. They’ll worry about being evaluated unfairly or maliciously with new metrics and characterize the 360º feedback process as busy work.

Relatively privileged employees will ignore optional resources and disengage or grow resentful of mandatory ones. Marginalized employees may ignore resources as well, wary that showing vulnerability will confirm negative stereotypes, expose them to more discrimination, or risk further disadvantage. 

Put simply, unless employees trust that change will benefit both them and the organization they work for, they won’t buy into it. And when employees don’t buy into change, change doesn’t happen.

Key steps for building trust

Trust is important. But how can companies successfully cultivate it? 

1. Look backwards to identify past and present wrongs

The reality is that most companies already have a track record when it comes to trust — a negative one. Every initiative that promised change and went nowhere diminishes trust. Every broken promise from a leader diminishes trust. Every interpersonal conversation with a harmed employee who was told that things would get better, and waited, only to see no change in the harm they experience diminishes trust.

Leaders don’t just have to build trust, they have to rebuild it. That often requires looking backwards to identify the incidents that damaged trust in the first place and the root cause of inequity. 

It’s important to note that “identify past and present wrongs” doesn’t mean “find bad managers and get rid of them.” Often, a serious investigation into why employees experience unequal outcomes points to root causes beyond a few bad managers or teammates to systemic factors like culture, policy, process, and practice. 

2. Take a firm and specific stance on equity and fairness

If trust is low, one or two remedial solutions won’t immediately repair it. Employees will suspect that even well-intentioned efforts that resolve real challenges are performative efforts that lack substance, meant to appease or silence advocates for change.

To push back against that perception, employers need to state in no uncertain terms the slate of changes they’ll push. It’s not enough to say that they stand for racial equity or gender parity — they need to draw on their understanding of past and present wrongs to indicate specifically what they plan to address. It’s not enough to just “look into hiring;” companies need to “audit their hiring process to correct for the bias of male hiring managers.” It’s not enough to just “support their ERGs;” companies need to “create a new budgetary allocation for joint events between ERGs and Learning & Development and dedicate resources to start an ERG-led mentorship program.” 

3. Offer recompense for those harmed by inequity 

Taking only a forward-looking stance works well to build momentum for future efforts. Yet, the people harmed by past and present inequities are unlikely to look favorably to initiatives that only promise change “in the future.”

When employers conduct pay equity audits, disparities are rectified by backpaying employees what they were owed. While this approach doesn’t perfectly map onto all DE&I-related issues, it exemplifies the spirit with which employers should begin rebuilding trust. If performance evaluations are being changed, ensure that effort is taken to acknowledge the deficit of past and present evaluations and transparently prioritize those harmed by them for new opportunities, promotions, and the like. 

4. Solicit buy-in from all stakeholders with a value proposition for change that makes sense to everyone

Leaders can’t assume that only those harmed by past and present inequities need to buy in to change. Those who benefited from the status quo, who may have had a hand in creating and maintaining inequity, are frequently threatened by the prospect of change and the idea that betterment for other groups will come at their expense.

To create buy-in from these individuals, change requires both restorative and additive framing. Restorative framings depict change as reducing discrimination, creating greater fairness for all, and promoting consistency across the organization. Additive framings speak to the benefits of change for all employees, from increased transparency in career paths to greater opportunities for professional development at work. 

At the heart of these efforts should be a uniting narrative that embodies the ethos of the organization:

“Our organization is changing to better embody the core values and mission statement that our founders believe in.” 

“Our organization is changing to better serve changing markets and a changing world.” 

“Our organization is changing to boldly expand our reach and influence into new audiences and new opportunities to make an impact.”

5. Humbly celebrate victories and own up to mistakes along the way 

No change happens overnight. While obtaining the trust and buy-in of all stakeholders is a momentous achievement, sustaining it throughout the non-linear trajectory of change is equally difficult. Not every initiative will succeed. Some initiatives will only improve things for some stakeholders. Some initiatives will fail, or temporarily worsen things for some stakeholders. Some initiatives deliver quick wins but not lasting change, while others offer no immediate changes, but promise long-term improvements.

To sustain momentum through all of this, leaders need to prioritize transparency and honesty first and foremost, even when mistakes happen. A positive but realistic outlook on change that doesn’t over-promote victories or cover up setbacks helps maintain the trust of all employees throughout the months and years it takes to make change.