3 Reasons Why Your DEI Strategy Feels Performative to Staff

By Travonnie Mackey

At this point, most mission-driven organizations have expressed a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their values statements. Unfortunately, those statements continue to fall flat with staff because they don’t feel it in their day-to-day experiences. 

It’s risky to make this explicit commitment and not back it up because today’s workforce is willing to transition from good-paying jobs if they feel their leadership teams are all talk. A sampling of our recent client data revealed 30% of staff would leave the organization because of a lack of trust in their leadership team. 

Sense of inclusion matters. For many staff, no salary bump compensates for this gap in your value proposition as an employer. When the messaging they hear is disconnected from their experiences, they start to wonder, “Am I willing to work this hard for a company that doesn’t match my values?” 

Dangerous misalignment 

While the correlation above is concerning, our work with clients this year has also revealed some really encouraging insights. We have consistently found that organizational leaders are pretty genuine about their values. But because they haven’t yet revamped their ways of operating, reiterating their beliefs in website statements, social media posts, and internal emails feel like salt in the wound for their staff.

To avoid the revolving door of passionate, mission-driven talent, organizations need to do two things really well. 

  1. Voice your commitment to anti-racism and DEI. Make it explicit and publish it externally. If folks are wondering what you believe, you’ve already lost their trust. Then as soon as you’ve made it clear what you care about…
  2. Quickly align your policies, processes, and programming to your values. If your messaging isn’t immediately backed by a shift in practice, staff may assume you don’t really mean it. Essentially, your org has to walk the talk


Manifesting the I in DEI

I want to double-click on inclusion and explore three reasons staff may see an organization’s values statement as a tactic to keep the peace versus the real, systemic change they were hoping to see.

We define inclusion as the organization making space for the voices and identities that are historically excluded from the conversation. While we continue to partner with org leaders who want this to be true, we have found a few critical reasons it’s not translating to the employee experience. To be blunt here, this is why they don’t feel it.

Reason 1: Your sharing is “surface level

Staff are craving context around the decisions you’re making for the organization. It helps foster confidence that you’re paying attention to the things they value. Sharing also creates an environment for accountability. When staff believe the leadership team is going to hold itself accountable, we see a deepened sense of inclusion. 

Review your upcoming meeting agendas for opportunities to share the real data and insight driving your decisions. 

When you have sufficient subgroup data to protect anonymity, share how black and brown folks are showing up in your talent life cycle. Address workforce trends that seem to align with gender. Share whether your efforts to make space for people are working. Share what you’re learning and what you’re proud of, but also share where you’re far from meeting your own personal bar. Your staff will appreciate you acknowledging the things they inherently notice, feel and wonder, which will go a long way toward feelings of belonging.

When you aren’t diverse enough to slice the data, name that too. It’s tough to create a deep sense of inclusion for minority groups when diversity is lacking…but that’s another post for another day.

Reason 2: Your listening is reserved for a few

To make space for people, you should create intentional opportunities for their voices to be heard. You want to build a culture where their diverse, unique perspectives continuously inform your decision-making. This doesn’t necessarily mean you start making decisions by a group vote, but it does mean decisions rarely get made without input on the front end or feedback on the back end. 

When this perspective cycle happens regularly enough, your staff starts to assume you’re keeping them top of mind. They feel more confident that you’re going to make decisions with an understanding of the way it will impact them. They feel more certain that you care enough to consider your impact on them.

Oftentimes, this kind of listening is not available for all staff. An exclusive listening culture yields three layers of characteristics to avoid. If you’re observing these indicators, your sense of inclusion is at risk. While you will certainly see the impact on your entire team, these behaviors cut deeper for staff who identify with historically marginalized groups. 

  • Individual Layer – Dismissive One-on-One Interactions – Only a few people feel comfortable sharing dissenting opinions. Some people need to repeat themselves or be backed by colleagues before their perspectives are acknowledged. You observe folks filtering their speech in a stark shift from their typical authentic voices because they aren’t sure how their ideas will be received.
  • Team Layer – One-Sided Meeting Agendas – The talk ratio in meetings is heavily skewed toward positional power. Many times the agenda itself was not created with a listening culture in mind. Meetings take up the bulk of the work day but rarely include opportunities for (1) problem solving (2) collective decision making (3) trust building (4) reflection or (5) learning together. If you get through a meeting and didn’t actually need to hear from everyone, then you probably didn’t need that meeting. More importantly, you’ve reinforced the idea that listening to staff perspectives isn’t really your thing.
  • Organizational Layer – Incomplete Root Cause Analysis – There’s no habit of surveying staff to learn feedback on strengths and needs. Or the survey is followed by quick action planning without creating listening forums to better understand the data. The unintentional message sent is “We already know what you need and we can solve it without your input,” As a result, the solutions do not resonate with the team.

If you are creating space to listen and people aren’t sharing, it may be because they’ve shared before and you didn’t receive the information well. Defensiveness is a feedback repellant. The more of it you put on, the less feedback comes your way. Or maybe you’re struggling with reason #3… 

Reason 3: Your listening isn’t followed by action 

Have you received the same feedback across multiple exit interviews and staff surveys? Is the stuff that’s bubbling up on manager 360s the same as last year? Do you have circular team meetings that never seem to lead to an action plan? 

Making space to talk but never acting on what you heard sends the message that you’re just talking to appease everyone. Staff will read future listening spaces as disingenuous and their sense of inclusion takes a hit.

I get it, sometimes you flat-out disagree with the feedback or it doesn’t make sense to you. None of that matters here. The core of active listening is making people feel heard. You want staff to know that you are willing to make space for their perspectives in your plan, especially when their perspective is different from yours. Start making the connection between your actions and their voices so that people keep sharing with you. It might sound like:

  • We heard you say ___ so we’ve created a new policy that __
  • We heard you say __ so we are investing in ___
  • We heard you say __ but in this case, we have to prioritize __ and we will do our best to prevent __ going forward by ___

Put your values to work. Act on equity.

We believe equity isn’t a box to check. It’s a daily action. Someone’s unique identity isn’t something to overcome–when paired with the right opportunity, it becomes one of their greatest professional assets. We exist to empower social impact organizations to recognize and overcome unconscious bias, racism and sexism so they can build a workforce that reflects and strengthens the communities they serve.