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  • Writer's pictureAnisa Aven

Extinguish the Fuse of Resistance

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

We're at a tipping point. Social injustice, systemic discrimination, acts of exclusion and increasingly polarized views and unrest are combining to create organizational crisis. At the same time, diversity and inclusion initiatives are seen as disruptive, or even an attempt to create an unfair advantage. So as leaders in charge of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion results, we must design our programs to mitigate these risks and intentionally lower resistance.

Systemic racism + structural discrimination + acts of exclusion = Organizational Crisis

To extinguish resistance to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, we must first understand that the root cause of most resistance is a threatened social identity. Social Identity Theory, formulated by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner, proposes that intergroup behaviors can be predicted on the basis of perceived group status differences. i.e. groups which people belong to are a important source of pride and self esteem. And, as an automatic response, group members experience social identity threats when the moral behavior of their group is called into question.

Therefore, in order for Diversity & Inclusion programs to be effective, we must soften this resistance out of the gate by redirecting our focus away from blaming and historical injustices. This does not diminish the fact or truth that we must also address historical injustices, but the focus must be on the value of diversity and inclusion, as opposed to the tragedy of our past. As we consider how to restructure and refocus Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion programs, we must shift the conversation to:

  1. Progress Made - Highlight successful initiatives and tie them to tangible ROI. Numerous studies show that organizations which foster a diverse workplace and are committed to inclusion outperform their competitors by up to 38%.

  2. Eliminate Public Shaming - Focus on the behaviors that represent the organizational values. The values of respect, appreciation of diversity, and inclusion.

  3. Create a Safe Space for Growth - Make educational resources available and train employees on how to create a safe place for listening and discussing injustices and discrimination topics openly.

  4. Benefit of Equality for All - Oppose one-off Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity initiatives that are overly focused on a specific minority group at the detriment to another, or the majority. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who the victim is. Instead, invest in a holistic cultural diversity strategy that ensures equity of opportunity for all.

  5. Listen to Employees - Create a listening strategy that builds a direct line of communication between employees and leaders. Employees need to know that engaging will result in real and timely change. Leaders need to know that a failure to respond in a timely manner will destroy trust.

  6. Avoid Dominant Focus on Historical Injustice - There’s a time for the historical injustice conversation. However, ensuring a safe place for diverse viewpoints comes first, otherwise majority groups’ social identity, once threatened, brings out defensiveness that closes minds and shuts down discourse. This is sure to derail any diversity and inclusion in the workplace activity. Instead, focus the discussion on tangible and solvable issues in your organization.

Check out an infographic of these tips here!

Remember that perceived attacks on social identity will cause groups to resist, deny, and withdraw support for your workplace diversity & inclusion goals. When this happens, your minority groups will feel disheartened, exhausted and once again like they don’t belong.

To state the obvious, it’s unfortunate that we have to maneuver carefully around an adult’s feelings in order to foster buy-in for diversity appreciation, inclusion and equity of opportunity for all. Nevertheless, skilled diversity training experts can navigate this new territory effectively by knowing the landscape.

DEI defensiveness is real and will derail programs.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is complicated and DEI defensiveness is real, and will derail your programs. This does not mean that we put our heads in the sand about structural and systemic discrimination, it simply means we develop inroads for change by minimizing the threat to one’s social identity.

The bottom line takeaway is that to overcome structural flaws and mitigate resistance that most programs will face, we need to help our teams deliver the right-sized approach, at the right time, with the right people.

At Lean DEI we help organizations deliver the right Diversity and Inclusion program. If you're interested in learning more, or getting a free consultation on your DEI strategy, contact us at

- Anisa Aven



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