Diversity Fatigue in the Workplace: How to Get Unstuck
You may have noticed the phrase “diversity fatigue” popping up in the media or heard it in your office. There has been much written about employees who say they feel disengaged and even cynical about diversity training programs. As Rod Githens, an associate professor of leadership and organization development at the University of the Pacific told CNN, “You hear all these depressing stats over and over, and there’s this perception that nothing is changing.”
What’s behind the fatigue, and how can companies combat it? Catalyst put those questions to two experts: Dnika Travis, Ph.D., who leads and manages Catalyst’s research content development; and Audrey Gallien, a Senior Director in Catalyst’s Learning & Advisory Services.
Q: Do you think there is diversity fatigue, and if so, what’s the cause of it?
Dnika Travis: Of course, people can feel overwhelmed, disheartened, uncertain, or even fearful when talking about diversity or working in this space. But we need to shift the question and move toward a granular view of what diversity fatigue may mean for different people.
Audrey Gallien: Behind any type of diversity fatigue lies a disconnect. For example, the objective of organizational diversity is often communicated as meeting a specific goal, target, or number. While that is true and representation matters, humanity, empathy, and curiosity, tend to be an added “lesson” as opposed to something that is integrated (pun intended).
We see fatigue when companies do not invest in the skillsets of vulnerability and connection that are required to understand the intrinsic benefit of increasing diversity. Without the skill of connecting across difference, something that the majority of our population has never been taught, people can hide behind silence, resistance, and frustration in deep misunderstanding.
Travis: A D&I practitioner also may feel stuck due to a lack of staffing needed to deliver on goals. A manager may be disheartened by their inability to get fresh ideas on the table from their diverse team. A person of color may be exhausted by the constant need to be on guard to ward off bias and microaggressions. A senior executive may feel “fatigued” because they get the business case for diversity, yet solutions shared with them focus on awareness rather than action. Each has a different root cause and require different remedies. Simply because the fatigue exists does not mean diversity is inherently burdensome. This is also an assumption worth talking about.
Q: What is the evidence that diversity programs work in organizations?
Gallien: You need precise measurement. You can have all the pillars, workstreams, and councils (oh my!) but still ask, “Now what?” Depth of responsive data is where D&I work gets interesting.
Let’s take the Catalyst Inclusion Accelerator. Our researchers identified 26 metrics to measure the multiple facets of inclusion organization-wide. Say you learn that your R&D team reported that only 30% experience psychological safety in moments of failure but 70% scored courage as an inclusion driver. How should you interpret the data? This team values courage but is not equipped to be courageous when we need it the most: in response to failure! So, you invest in innovative courageous feedback, failure and response simulations, storytelling of fears and missteps, and monitor progress for a 6-month period.
Listen to the heartbeat of the culture and play to its strengths. Now that’s compelling.
Travis: Let’s steer away from inadvertently creating a false dichotomy that either diversity programs work or they don’t. With any change effort, there will be successes and failures. It’s the learning that comes from the failures or missteps that also can signal progress. Diversity initiatives are no exception.
Leaders must ask tough questions, set a compelling vision, secure buy-in, and be open to refining their strategy in every phase. Team managers must evaluate their own biases and behaviors and model inclusive leadership behaviors. Companies must also look beyond solely using diversity data as a measure of success or failure, and also focus on creating inclusive work culture. Progress lives here.
Q: What we are we still avoiding that would make a difference in creating successful diversity initiatives? What is the uncovered territory? The unspoken issues?
Gallien: Nikole Hannah-Jones, award-winning investigative reporter, said in an interview with Adam Conover on the podcast Adam Ruins Everything, “We conflate diversity with integration.” She was referring to the misconception of many New Yorkers who think because there is visible diversity that the city is integrated. New York is one of the most segregated cities in the US (especially the school system). And while I do think that companies’ intended play on “integration” is “inclusion,” we are still avoiding the ever-present reality that most of our lives are homogenous outside of work.
I’ll never forget when Candi Castleberry Singleton, Twitter’s Vice President of Intersectionality, Culture, and Diversity, asked an audience of tech companies, “Who are your five closest friends?” Candi’s message was simple: if the people closest to you are mostly like you, then you’re going to have a hard time making the change you’re striving for at work. Why don’t we talk about this more?
Travis: Sometimes we miss the necessary daily dose of truth serum. What is really going on for your employees on a day-to-day? The answer can be painful to face. It’s uncomfortable to have real conversations with leaders and say, “What’s happening in our organization is not okay. And, this is not an indictment of you. You are not a terrible person. But, you need to do things differently. Let’s learn more. Ask questions. Take a hard look at the data. Then, we can put a plan in place.”
Leaders also can create explicit agreements with team members for candor. “Tell me what’s working, what’s not, and why. What specifically do I need to know that you may be fearful of telling me?” In these conversations, focus on listening.
Practice humility and learn as much as possible, and you will start making progress.