Achieving True Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity in Our Lifetime

By Jim Robinson, Executive Director, GW-CEPL

September 28, 2022

 Jim Robinson waves his hand while grinning and speaking into a microphone.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The George Washington University.

There has been a lot of consideration given recently to the issues and concerns regarding diversity, inclusion, and systemic racism. We have become more sophisticated in our appreciation that diversity includes much more than race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, or expression. It includes such differences as thinking styles, communication, interaction styles, and much more.

We have seen the research on organizational performance, which shows time and again that more diverse teams make better decisions, and solve problems more creatively. We have come to understand, often through the ‘school-of-hard-knocks’, that stakeholder diversity is critical when making decisions that cross organizational boundaries. We need multiple perspectives if we are to craft systemic solutions that truly address the complexities of our most vexing and persistent challenges.

What is True Diversity and What is Stopping Us from Achieving It?

Still, too often, our first instinct is to gather those around us who are most like us. Sometimes, these similarities disguise themselves by appearing in different demographics, and other kinds of diversities. But when we look closer, we begin to discern similarities of professional background, thinking preferences, or shared values. We may suddenly recognize that we gathered people around us who look at problems through the same set of conceptual lenses. And so, the result is too often a kind of "groupthink".

Those who do not share our approaches or views of the world are sometimes included, but on the periphery, and their contributions are marginalized. And so, we miss a treasure chest full of alternative thinking and subtle distinctions that can make a significant difference in the range of solutions we consider.

I have come to think that one of the most difficult kinds of diversity to include are those related to power differentials. So often we want to make decisions without involving our frontline workers, or hearing the voices of citizens from economically and socially disadvantaged communities who will be deeply affected by our actions.

Our professional arrogance leads to really poor decisions, which cannot realistically be implemented by those charged to do so, or which are peremptorily rejected by the citizens we are here to ‘save’.

This is not late-breaking news for you. You know this and you have seen and experienced the frustrations and unintended consequences of ‘arrogance run amok’.

The Vaccine to Poor Leadership Decisions?

One antidote for this kind of exclusion and diminishment is to deliberately empower those most directly affected. We can choose to vest them with the skills, the information, the technology, and the authority to make or, at least, participate equally in the decisions which will impact them.

This is done, not so that they will become ‘mini-me's’ - thinking like us, but, rather, so that they will bring their own lived wisdom and experiential learning to bear in both understanding the problem and crafting its solution.

This has to be done in a partnership with us that is not paternalistic, but rather built on true respect for the knowledge and sensitivities gained from lived experience.

What Inclusion Looks Like in Practice

This kind of inclusion, like all of the others previously mentioned, requires a willingness to listen deeply from the mind and the heart. It requires a willingness to dig deeper to find the root commonalities from which we can craft co-intentions leading to co-creative thoughts and actions. It requires that we demonstrate a deep respect for others who may see things very differently and who, at first experience, may not be so appreciative of our good intentions or academic pedigrees.

Sometimes, their previous experiences of being looked down upon or ignored cause them to look at us with deep skepticism and pent-up anger. We will have to earn their trust by listening deeply, acknowledging their contributions, acknowledging previous missteps, and, even, at times, eating some humble pie.

In addition, it is important that we communicate honestly in our words and follow through on our commitments. When we disagree, we need to communicate that with open communication and a sincere desire to understand and explore our differences more deeply.

7 Action Steps You and Your Organization Can Commit To:

  1. If possible, shift your view to include an ‘asset-based’ development approach. What assets does the community have? Can we identify them in collaboration with the affected community? This can help to shift the energy from targeted victim to empowered co-creative partner with something to build on… not just obstacles and deficits to overcome.
  2. Use an Appreciative Inquiry approach to identify what is working, what supports improvement, and what can be used moving forward. This includes such things as: seasoned experience and wisdom, commitment, collaborative relationships, technical expertise, historical knowledge, and lessons learned from previous failed improvement projects.
  3. Be prepared to be unfairly attacked for the broken commitments of others, the arrogance of those who came before you, and their skepticism that your interests do not align with those targeted for change, and then… listen anyway. Listen for feelings, perspectives you had not considered, history lessons, indirectly expressed hopes, desires, and visions, questions, requests for information, and challenges to your stated intentions.
  4. Become aware of differences among those with whom you are engaging. They are not a monolith. What might those differences mean for how you move forward?
  5. Listen deeply and use active listening to reflect back to others that which you have heard including feelings and tone when possible.
  6. Be prepared to succinctly communicate your intentions, your values, and your hopes for your working relationship with them as well as any hard stop limitations.
  7. Finally, consider (with an open mind) ideas that appear to be outside the boundaries for your consideration. What is the intent or objective behind them? Are there ways for you to support the intent or objective even though you may not support a particular approach?

The benefit for all of us is that in undertaking these steps we can, and we will be, surprised at how much we will grow, how deeply we will be moved, the depth of friendships we will create, and the wisdom we will have co-created in genuine partnership with others.

I know how difficult this can be in our time of living in bubbles and silos and media tailored to reinforce our existing beliefs. I can truly say, however, that I am always enriched by the experience and my humanity is broadened and deepened.

May you continue to grow and may your life be enriched on your leadership journey.