Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) remains a focus within the business community. Companies continue to explore and implement initiatives to create a culture of acceptance and understanding, while carrying out their overall missions and remaining profitable. But building an effective DEI strategy calls for a new mindset among business leaders if current and future initiatives are going to succeed. This Advisor offers two “mini-starters” to explore the DEI issue in more depth: (1) a critique of leadership programs for Black executives with suggestions for improvement and (2) the threat that “me over we” poses to both DEI programs and the business sector at large.
Potential for Black Executive Leadership Programs
Programs for Black leaders have been around for decades, yet have not really cut through in the corporate sector as a result of multifaceted policy failures. Programs haven’t been enough in number, not enough companies have them, and, most importantly, Black leadership programs tend to lack depth, detail, and a clearly articulated action plan of what needs to change. There has even been criticism from white employees who say the programs are just a box-ticking exercise, implemented to provide the organization with a DEI badge of honor, so the company can say it is addressing the problem of racism.
In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, authors Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J. Mayo examined demographics pertaining to DEI initiatives and racial advancement in the workplace, noting that “55 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act and decades after these D&I efforts, African Americans’ progress toward top management roles and greater economic well-being and influence remains slow to nonexistent.” These demographics, which are wide in scope, show the lack of career traction made across racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender, and socioeconomic status.
Something needs to change. Consider, for example, the impressive Black Leaders Program at Stanford Business School. A twist to make a program such as that even better would be to match every Black participant with a non-Black manager who would also take the course. I believe this approach will help Black and non-Black executives in the development of self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-realization. And I’m far from the first person to suggest it.
Program changes could help executives internalize different ways of knowing; this knowledge then can be used to address DEI in corporate procedures, which can change appropriately while still delivering a profit. That’s the previously discarded missing link in the corporate sector, which needs to be reconnected in the 2020s going forward. The ideas offered in this Advisor is one corporate policy response that can help build the essential DEI community required of the 2020s corporate workplace.
The Threat Posed by “Me over We”
The drive for what I call “internalized DEI,” where everyone is equally welcomed and valued in the workplace — regardless of race, ethnicity, and so on — is being buffeted by competing workforce interests elsewhere. One such interest is the element of the “me over we” work culture, which has slowly crept into corporate workforces in the 2020s as a consequence of the Great Resignation and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Me over we” is a corporate sector dichotomy, of which one branch represents an existential threat to large businesses because everyone is out for themselves, while the other branch is an existential threat to internalized DEI. For the first branch, the corporate workforce increasingly wants to see an emotional and moral dividend, as an added attraction in their work for a business employer. This workforce aspiration, to engage in work with social value, heralds a reprioritization of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is a good thing. Increased CSR is beneficial, but it also means increased productivity costs somewhere, alongside — to a small degree — a disaffected, distracted workforce.
The second branch manifests itself as follows. An unintended consequence of the global pandemic in 2020 is that the “me over we” workforce culture intensified. For countries with advanced economies and a widespread corporate sector, “me over we” gained increased salience. Indeed, some members of the corporate workforce benefited from COVID-19 lockdown income protection schemes more than others. Moreover, there was an actual or a sense of perceived disparity internally within certain corporate bodies, where non-white, disabled, LGBTQ+ (mainly female) employees seemed to lose out disproportionally compared to mainstream white men. Thus, the 2020s drive toward the corporate sector building a DEI community internally stalled during the COVID-19 crisis. The existential threat is that the temporary lengthy pause will continue into the post-COVID-19 recovery period.
[For more from the author on this topic, see: “Taking the Lead in Corporate DEI: Strategies for Thought Leaders.”]