The Problem with DEI “Quick Wins”

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Originally published in The Inclusion Solution

In our fast-paced hyper-capitalist culture, we have been conditioned to continually seek ways to maintain motivation at work. But juggling the numerous and often labor-intensive projects we’re tasked with, we are constantly at risk of burnout, both individually and organizationally. And often, since our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are de facto perceived more in the realm of office “well-being” or even philanthropy — rather than the organizational imperative they really are — DEI tends to fall off of the list of organizational priorities. In other words, “busy culture” is killing DEI.

So, how do our organizations respond to this and keep us motivated? We tout the virtue of quick wins to ensure that we are meeting targets. We have come to believe that these quick wins provide us with the drive needed to stay the course and that they compound to eventually create lasting change. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Often, how we are framing the initial steps on our long road to lasting change can slow down or even derail our path.

Take hiring as an example. Viewing hiring targets as easy wins can be problematic. Not only is it condescending to celebrate the fact that we’ve finally hired a woman or person of color to a position of leadership — we’re essentially celebrating that person’s identity as a win for our company rather than it being something intrinsically human and sacred to that individual — but that sense of perverse accomplishment is also detrimental to your DEI program. Many organizations will celebrate the “diversity hire” rather than be celebratory and welcoming of the individual who can contribute immensely if they are able to bring their authentic selves to the workplace. This type of celebration can be toxic, creating the sense that our organization is well on its way to being “woke,” when hiring is literally just the first step.

DEI programs are vulnerable, sometimes hanging on by a thread. Though there are many exceptions, DEI programs and initiatives are often ineffective at a time when we now truly understand the urgency in working to dismantle white supremacy and other systems of oppression. DEI teams should be operating efficiently and be free of distractions that detract from long-term goals. And while there is nothing wrong with celebrating the positive outcomes of our efforts, we must be mindful not to allow ourselves to be derailed by small thinking. We cannot let our focus on quick wins distract us from why we started our DEI program in the first place.

Here are three ways to reframe our work in order to combat busy culture’s effects on DEI:

1.) View DEI as an indefinite marathon, not a series of sprints.

It is imperative that we firmly place our entire DEI program within the framework of sustained organizational culture change — respective projects and goals within that framework — rather than viewing DEI as a project itself. DEI is beyond long-term. Your organization’s DEI goals should be so magnanimous in the pursuit of justice that they seem unachievable at this very moment in time. Furthermore, your organization is a deeply embedded part of greater society and as a result, is burdened with all of the societal constructs, paradigms and issues associated with living in a white supremacist, misogynist, transphobic, ableist, etc. society. So long as the world conditions its inhabitants to adopt problematic behaviors and beliefs, and so long as your employees are not isolated from the world, there will always be a need for DEI.

2.) Replace use of the term “quick win” with “short-term goal.”

This is a testament to the power of language in how it shapes our reality. It’s also a short-term (see what I did there?) solution to help normalize the view that it’s just a small part of a larger set of actions we’re taking to achieve equity and justice. The phrase “quick win” carries with it a particular connotation, one that doesn’t encompass the full weight of the importance of the field of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “Quick win” implies that it’s an item on a checklist, not a serious effort to correct legacies of systemic oppression and injustice. We must be very intentional about our efforts and mindful of the gravity of our current situation, especially as of this writing, which is amid both a pandemic and the aftermath of a white supremacist insurrection.

3.) Assess the true impact of your short-term goals.

It may be easy for us to tackle items that we consider low-hanging fruit. However, we should be cautious not to focus energy on any initiatives if they don’t really contribute to the broader goals of equity and justice. We may often pursue certain quick wins that give the perception that our organization is on the right path, but in reality, we have diverted resources to items that have no real effect (or even a negative effect) on organizational culture. Additionally, our organizations are being held to accountability standards like never before. We, as a society, are much more vocal about assessing the true impacts and outcomes of these initiatives. We want to see results and are becoming inoculated against celebrating vanity projects or programs developed solely for optics. If you are focusing on “quick wins” but your culture surveys year after year show that your employees are coming to the realization that your DEI program is “all talk,” it may be time to abandon the quick win verbiage.

In sum, the goal isn’t to completely abandon celebrations of smaller achievements, so long as these achievements have a real impact in chipping away at the systems of oppression that are plaguing our workplaces. My appeal here is to change how we are framing those achievements. Our focus on quick wins can often take a life of their own and themselves become the end goal. Framing these smaller aims, or short-term goals, within the context of a larger culture change initiative that has real, measurable outcomes will help us break free of the affliction of the quick win.

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