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Tips to Engage Resistant Employees with DEI

As companies strive to create more inclusive workplace cultures in a society that seems to encourage division, many are experiencing opposition in the form of disengaged and outright resistant employees. Even with the right approach from leaders at the top, without buy-in from employees, cultural transformation can be an uphill battle with negative individual and organizational consequences. 

So how do you reach your team members who don’t see value in your DEI efforts? Take a look at these easy tips to get started on start facilitating healthy conversations:

1. Define your why

Changing people’s minds is HARD and ultimately unlikely. With that in mind, decide what you want to get out of the conversation. Are you focusing on moving towards a specific action? Making space for personal reflection? Clearly outline what a successful discussion looks like and then design with the end in mind. Remember that it’s not about “winning” the conversation.

It’s also important to have an idea of how you will handle objections. Think about what topics may come up and consider how you would respond. Be prepared to intervene if a conversation gets heated, so you can redirect the dialogue without derailing the entire discussion. Remember that some conflict is okay as long as it’s respectful and productive, but there is a fine line before it can become toxic. Consider phrases like:

“Let’s pause for a moment – we seem to have gotten off-track and the conversation is going a direction that I’m not comfortable with.”

“I want to acknowledge this moment, but let’s shift the conversation to something more constructive and we can come back to this later.”

2. Know your role

As the facilitator, it’s up to you to create an inclusive space. Set ground rules (consider co-creating these with your team) up front. They could include things like all voices should have the opportunity to be heard, speak for yourself (don’t generalize or share overheard information), prioritize impact over intention, and lean into listening. 

Leading by example and sharing your own experiences is important, but make sure to balance letting others share. You should also keep track of those who aren’t talking and provide ways for people to give input if they aren’t comfortable in a group setting (this could be in the form of pre-work, surveys, or one-on-one discussions). Be comfortable with silences as people form responses and be prepared that you may have to mediate when necessary. 

3. Understand your audience

As an empathetic leader, understanding why your employees may be resistant to DEI is important. Recognize that conversations around DEI topics can often challenge a person’s individual or social identity. Asking someone to reassess long-held beliefs may not be something the person is capable, or willing, to do at this point in time. Forcing the issue could result in your employees digging their heels in deeper. 

Encourage calling in, or the practice of inviting someone to consider a different perspective, rather than calling someone out. Centering how a behavior impacts others is key versus just telling someone they are wrong.

4. Change the language

Recognize that common terminology may be more inflammatory than intended. Using the words diversity, inclusion, privilege, or bias can have negative associations and cause more harm than good. Consider alternatives – diversity becomes different perspectives, inclusion becomes belonging, and privilege becomes opportunities others haven’t had. This simple shift can help employees think about these terms in a less confrontational way.

It’s also important to know what your audience responds to. Are they data-driven? Come with facts and statistics. Do they respond well to examples? Provide stories and first-hand accounts. Do they need to see research? Be ready with reputable sources that support the conversation. Knowing the “language” that resonates with your people can help avoid someone shutting down right away.

5. Find common ground 

It can be hard for a person from one walk of life to connect with a person from another, but real-world examples can help us bridge that gap. DEI training can’t replace the empathy we develop when we hear real stories from people that we know. When we can empathize with someone else’s situation, we’re able to connect on a much deeper level. 

Create opportunities for your team to learn about these commonalities from one another. This could be through informal discussion questions at the top of a meeting, team building activities, or developing shared goals. Encourage your team to share successes as well as struggles and what they learned. Document these commonalities with the intent of showcasing shared ground. 

Understanding and supporting DEI efforts is different for every individual, so it’s important to meet people where they’re at on their journey. Some individuals may be supportive of certain DEI topics but resistant to others. Focus your conversations on one topic versus the entire umbrella of DEI and make sure you’re consistent. A single conversation in one meeting will not support a culture of belonging. Make it known that DEI is, and will continue to be, a priority for you, your team and the organization.

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Beth Ridley is a former corporate executive turned organizational transformation consultant, speaker and author. Beth combines 25 years of global leadership and management consulting experience with expertise in diversity and inclusion and positive psychology to partner with leaders to transform workplace cultures to better achieve their vision and goals. Beth’s work is featured in national publications and she frequently delivers keynotes and workshops at events around the world. Beth lives with her husband and three children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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