3 ways to making a real difference in your DEI initiatives

By Michael V. Nguyen 6 minute Read

Big companies often strive for making a real difference in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts but inevitably make lackluster progress.

I discussed the three most common pitfalls for organizations seeking to implement DEI initiatives. Greater awareness and understanding of these pitfalls is a good start for any organization that is sincere in its commitment to DEI. However, in addition to knowing which pitfalls to avoid, organizations also need to intentionally and authentically apply a few key principles with any DEI initiative if their goal is to make a genuine difference. Unfortunately, these principles are rarely understood or, even if they are understood, rarely well implemented. This is why most DEI efforts are unsuccessful.
It’s imperative that organizations do better because in the context of critical issues nationally and globally—changing demographics, civil rights, health disparities, immigration, and diversity in the workforce, workplace, and marketplace—DEI provides both tremendous opportunities and serious challenges.

Give people a “big” lens

There are two ways to look at systems and the people involved in them. One way is to see people as “small”—that is, collectively and from a distance, observing their behaviors from the perspective of overall trends and tendencies. The other way is to see people as “big,” or in a detailed and personal perspective.

Seeing people as big entails seeing the world from people’s intimate point of view. When applied to DEI in organizations, this brings us in close contact with details and particularities that are not easily reducible to statistics. In contrast, seeing people as small requires looking at them through the lens of a system, a vantage point of power or existing ideologies. Most frequently, it sees people of color and other marginalized and minority groups as deficient instead of the institution and its oppressive systems.

I once worked with a client in education that implemented a technology and 21st century skills initiative (T21). Its main purpose was to increase technology use in the classroom and the teaching of 21st century skills. The primary method of measuring the success of the program was through institutionally developed surveys, classroom observation, and interviews. After implementing the initiative, the school administration claimed T21 as a success based on the surveys which showed increased technology use and teaching of 21st century skills at the school. However, the other narrative that was not being reported, which was contained in teachers’ personal stories, was of the disruptions that the T21 initiative caused in the classrooms. Surveys and casual observations, which see people as small, were simply not designed to capture the personal stories that lie beneath (and are hidden by) the statistics.

This is an example of seeing people as “big.” Listening to and learning from conversations with the teachers at the school after their first year of participating in the T21 helped the organization shift its lenses from seeing small (via institutional measures) to seeing big via the teachers’ personal narratives.

Seeing teachers as big allowed the institution to see them as sources of valuable knowledge and understand how they protect their classrooms and students, as opposed to the institutional view, which sees teachers as small and considers their beliefs and practices as barriers to change. By seeing teachers as big, we sought to understand who these teachers were, who they currently are, and who they are becoming. In doing so, the institution began to see it was not the teachers who were the barriers to change but rather the institution itself.

Conduct more meaningful assessments

As important as it is to develop goals and implement plans for your DEI initiatives, in order to understand where you are being successful and where you need improvement, it is critical to conduct meaningful assessment.

Generally speaking, there are two types of assessment: direct and indirect. By far, indirect assessment is the most common. Typically, it is quantitative and conducted through surveys. As an example, let’s say your organization has created an employee resource group (ERG) for DEI. The typical indirect assessment of this ERG’s success would be measuring participants’ attendance, their level of satisfaction, and their level of confidence and understanding of DEI issues. Let’s say that the ERG had many participants, they were all highly satisfied, and they rated themselves strongly in confidence. Unfortunately, these data don’t provide us with what the participants may have learned, or the knowledge and abilities they may have gained. Do they understand the many ways that a system creates and maintains inequality (social, economic, and political) in their workplace or country? What would they do, for example, if they were to witness a microaggression against a colleague?

Less common is direct assessment in which you go beyond the participants’ self-reported levels of satisfaction or confidence. Instead, you have them define and describe their understanding of DEI and how they will apply this knowledge in their workplace. This method of assessment is more complex and time consuming, which is also why it is less commonly done. But it is the form of assessment that is more tangible and visible, and it generates more compelling evidence of exactly what people have or have not learned.

When it comes to assessment, there are two key things to keep in mind:

  • Go beyond the numbers. The type of metrics typically used to measure (and advertise) the success of a DEIB initiative are numbers (e.g., the number of women or people of color who have been hired). In certain contexts—say, where ROI is the sole outcome of concern—numbers alone can tell you everything you want to know. But when it comes to DEIB, numbers can be deceptive and therefore dangerous. Behind the numbers, there are human stories, and if these stories are not being told from the perspective of those living them, then the numbers can be used to tell false, incomplete, or misleading stories. This is yet another way of creating more harm than good.
  • Use participatory narrative inquiry. On the spectrum of qualitative research, at the lowest level are open-ended survey items, where the survey writers are the ones who create the questions and the answer choices. They are the ones who are in control. But there is a way to give control to the people who are living the stories behind the numbers, and that is by letting them share their lived experiences. This is called participatory narrative inquiry (PNI), which is a much more meaningful way to gather, interpret, and share data. PNI is an approach in which you work with the stories of lived experience in order to make sense of complex situations. It emphasizes raw, personal stories, from a diversity of perspectives, and it is interpreted by those who tell them. It focuses on the profound consideration of values, beliefs, feelings, and perspectives through the recounting and interpretation of those lived experiences. It is a way to see people as “big,” and it allows for better decision making. Unlike the most common qualitative approaches (i.e., surveys, focus groups, and interviews) one does not develop a standard set of questions to ask participants. PNI does not boil down stories, it boils them up.

Make DEI an imperative

A common form of resistance to DEI initiatives is when people see it as a separate issue that exists apart from the work that they do. In point of fact, the only way to achieve true diversity, equity, and inclusion is to have it be an imperative—a central part of everything we do.

A simple way to understand the DEI imperative is to think about technology. Nobody in a workplace would reasonably say, “I know that technology is important, but I am not going to use it or think about it.” In today’s world, that would be seen as absurd since most jobs in most organizations involve at least some degree of technology, even if it’s just phone or email. Just think, how long would you tolerate the internet or cellular phone service going out? This is because technology has become embedded in everything we do. DEI needs to be embedded in the same way. To date, few (if any) organizations have been able to fully accomplish this, which is why of all the key principles discussed in this article, this one is the most complex and challenging yet also critical.

Michael V. Nguyen, PhD, is an educational psychologist and lecturer in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California.