3 DEI Leadership Lessons Learned in 2022

2022 was a big year for me. I ticked some pretty awesome things off my bucket list (check out the interview we did with F1 world champion Nico Rosberg here, if you haven’t done so yet!), and I got to work with a lot of exciting new clients.

I am often hired to teach leaders ‘how to get DEI right’, but learning is a two-way street. I’m not a senior leader in a large, global organization. It’s my responsibility to help them navigate this complex topic, but it’s also my responsibility to understand what their main challenges are.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with a number of leaders who were incredibly candid and honest in describing their thoughts on this topic, and I wanted to use this opportunity to share my takeaways from these conversations.

The first is that everything that has happened in society over the past few years has led to a new level of openness when it comes to DEI. It is no longer something (most) senior leaders see as a nice-to-have. They have finally realized that creating space for everyone to thrive is imperative.

With that openness, comes a whole heap of confusion. What do we do? How do we do it? When do we do it? In which order do we do it? Slowly but surely the notion that diversity alone isn’t enough is creeping into senior leadership’s consciousness. In my opinion organizational DEI KPIs are still too focused on representation, but the upside is that tracking those diversity statistics over time has helped decision makers understand that if they don’t focus on the ‘EI’ part of the equation, the diversity they bring into the organization will disappear straight out the backdoor.

People want to feel seen and heard. They want to contribute. Focusing on developing equitable and inclusive cultures, in addition to diversity in hiring, will help create an environment that allows them to do so. I see confusion around the question ‘Why aren’t people from underrepresented groups moving up our career ladder?’ I celebrate that confusion, because it means we are finally asking the right questions. Confusion is the first step towards clarity.

My final lessons from 2022’s leadership conversations is that without intrinsic motivation, nothing happens. Our brains are dopamine machines. Without dopamine we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Dopamine makes us DO. The challenge here is that there is very little truly intrinsic reward, particularly for white male senior leaders, to DO. This is not an attack on white males. On the contrary, actually. I sympathize with their dilemma of having to give up some of their power for the greater good. Every single person I speak to understands that it is the right thing to do. However, if you were in a position of power and there is no real incentive for you to give up that power, would you do it?

From a neuroscientific perspective, the brain will only want to change the status quo if it is certain that the new situation is better than the previous one. Your brain’s natural tendency is to look out for number one: you. You’re not unique in that respect. All of our brains operate that way. We can fight that tendency, and we are able to do the harder thing when it is the right thing to do (thank you to Robert Sapolsky, author of the fantastic book ‘Behave’, for that quote). The challenge is that creating inclusive cultures is uncomfortable. Especially in the beginning, it doesn’t ‘feel’ like it’s the right thing to do. We just want everyone to get along, and true inclusion requires constructive conflict resolution. (Conflict. Another thing our brain doesn’t like!)

With all of this in mind, there is one piece of advice I want to share with every senior leader in my network that is working on DEI: Find out what’s in it for you.

If you are able to activate your intrinsic motivation, then any change you want to make will be that much easier to accomplish. And I will gladly use my facilitation skills to help you do this.