Companies are approaching diversity and inclusion all wrong. The answer for making organizations more equitable is not to hire a Chief Diversity Officer and hand them the reins. Or to swiftly hire more underrepresented people. It is insufficient to simply bring people of diverse backgrounds into companies and expect others to be “trained” to make space for them. Having witnessed many failed corporate DEI efforts in my career, I believe the only way to enact sustainable, systemic change is for CEOs to rewire the “brain” of their organizations.
The crucial first step in any transformation is having the willingness to be altered. The CEO should embrace the mindset that inclusion is innovation in action and then metabolize it. It is both a process and an outcome. Durable change is the result of raised awareness, focused attention, and deliberate practice. The plasticity of an organization lies in its ability to initiate and sustain such a shift.
Understanding that our brains can grow and change is key to seeing this possibility. Studies show that our brains continue to adapt to new information and experiences throughout adulthood. Brain change is only achieved, however, when we are present, intentional, and curious. Our innate instincts rely on old programming and subconscious beliefs to drive our decision-making. And this program operates from a limited set of assumptions from which the brain will choose: safe or dangerous, like me or unknown (and thus, a potential threat).
While some organizations have found it to be successful, unconscious bias training has limitations. Mike Noon, Ph.D., dean of the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London, outlines two issues to Workhuman. “The first problem with [it] is that it assumes everyone is amenable to changing their attitudes. But most people are likely to be comfortable with the biased views they have developed over their lifetime.” Another problem, he says, “is the assumption that the solution to discrimination and disadvantage lies in changing the actions of individuals, rather than reforming the processes and structures of the organization.”
Eliminating bias requires a reframe of how companies think about DEI altogether; it isn’t a problem to be solved, but rather a superpower through which limitless potential can be unlocked. The CEO should invite with radical curiosity the change that comes when diverse voices, experiences, and perspectives are enmeshed in the company’s culture, and reward those who embody this vision.
What does this look like in action? According to Dr. Tara Swart, neuroscientist, author, and professor of the Neuroscience for Business course I recently completed through MIT, there are three steps to creating sustainable change in the brain. I believe this same process applies to companies wanting to strengthen the neuroplasticity of their organization.
If asked, most leaders would unequivocally cite diversity as a priority for their companies. Yet, only 52% of the S&P 500 have a CDO, up from 47% in 2018, as recently reported by Russell Reynolds, a leading executive search firm. Turnover is also up. Russell Reynolds reports that nearly 60% of 2018 CDOs have left their roles, with the majority leaving the track altogether.
One could argue that these hires are often set up to fail before they start. Just as a leader wouldn’t launch a strategic business initiative without careful consideration for what’s necessary to succeed, nor should a CEO hire a CDO without taking inventory of its organization’s readiness to do the work. The first step is to audit your organizational plasticity, with the following questions in mind:
- How tolerant is the company of risk and of failure?
- Is there a sense of psychological safety amongst employees?
- To what extent does the company demonstrate a culture of continuous learning where all ideas are welcome?
- Is DEI positioned as a moral imperative or as a means by which business gaps and underperformance can be addressed?
- Is there a pattern of behavior that suggests a bias for what an expert or leader looks like?
At best, a company’s DEI efforts look like this: the CEO has raised the awareness of the organization’s priority on becoming more equitable for and inclusive of diverse employees. Perhaps they were thoughtful about when and how to introduce a DEI leader. They hired a senior executive to lead the work, and that person—often as a team of one reporting through dotted-line HR partners—outlines a recruiting plan, supports the formation or expansion of ERGs, and initiates bias and skills training designed for retention.
But when approached with clarity of intent, the DEI strategy is defined as a business imperative, has alignment across the leadership team, is socialized throughout the organization with clear expectations, and has been designed to deliver and measure impact. Without the business lens, a plan for executing, and the resources required for success, teams will not embrace this as a collective effort, nor will they dedicate the mindshare required for change.
Real transformation occurs in the purposeful and systematic adoption of new behaviors—beyond current competencies and comfort zones. Fortunately, working in inclusive environments is how we become more inclusive. “New experiences promote neuroplasticity. Exposing yourself to different kinds of people, new languages, new kinds of food will promote plasticity in your brain because your brain is having to adapt to change,” says Dr. Swart in her MIT course, based on her book The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life. This exposure puts creativity and inspiration in the driver’s seat, allowing innovation to emerge.
Progress must be measured. Accountability goes beyond employee satisfaction scores and even financial incentives. Get in the habit of regularly asking yourself and your leadership team these questions:
- How are you choosing what to focus on and what to filter out?
- Are there organizationally held beliefs that hinder progress within your team?
- How are you ensuring that a poor mindset and risk aversion do not impede positive change?
Make no assumptions and be vigilant about soliciting feedback. It is only when your actions align with your intentions that you can harness the power your company could have on creating this future that deserves to exist.
Daria Burke is an innovation and impact-focused c-suite fashion and beauty exec, board director, investor and self-proclaimed neuro nerd.