Blog Post

Three Pitfalls to Avoid When Implementing Your DEI Strategy

By Stefanie McNamara
April 18, 2022

How do you get hundreds of thousands of corporate employees to uphold diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their day-to-day? That is the challenge that nearly every Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) is grappling with in their own organizations today.

Subha Barry, President of Seramount, recently wrote: “Going from a DEI-driven model to a DEI-enabled model is a necessary next step to see real change in corporate America. Instead of having a CDO’s team serve as a central function that ‘owns’ DEI for the entire company, the work of creating and leading a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and culturally competent workforce is spread across business and talent leaders throughout the organization.”

This would mean shifting the current mindset, ultimately influencing group behavior at scale.

Currently, leaders are trying to do this by pulling the three DEI “levers”:

  • Trying to change hearts and minds so that employees authentically care about DEI
  • Establishing metrics and incentives to hold leaders accountable
  • Implementing the latest DEI activities to address the problem of the moment

These levers have a role to play in change management but relying on these same ideas again and again has yet to prove sufficient on their own. So why aren’t these efforts enough to effect lasting change? Seramount research uncovered three common pitfalls that DEI leaders should avoid when leading DEI strategy:

Pitfall 1: A lack of focus across DEI problems

When all DEI problems are a priority, it becomes nearly impossible to achieve all goals at once.  This is normal human behavior. Neuroscience research finds that when we feel pressure or urgency our brains often default to taking action as a way to maintain a sense of control. But our tendency to take action and focus on many problems at once can actually hinder our impact. Katie Mooney, Managing Director of Diversity Best Practices at Seramount, tells me: “To be accountable for the end-to-end diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts as CDOs and their teams is an enormous responsibility, along with the perception they have real-time answers to all racial, social, and economic justice issues. This likely can lead to easily getting derailed on prioritization efforts to advance their DEI strategies.”

DEI teams often face obstacles such as lack of resources, or they don’t have a team large enough to execute their robust strategies. To avoid this pitfall, prioritize your list of DEI concerns and focus on one or two a year. For example, if your organization is struggling to bring in more candidates from underrepresented groups, focus the attention on mitigating bias in your recruiting and hiring practices.

Pitfall 2: We are often quick to assume the reasons change hasn’t already occurred

What happens when you have a new DEI initiative, the important stakeholders have mostly bought in, and you have the budget and go-ahead from top leaders to move forward with your proposal? It’s a dream scenario. But even with the support and a team in place, some of the same frustrating problems continue year after year. Many strategies fall short because they are formed on wrong assumptions about why people are not changing their behavior.

During heightened pressure and the need to feel immediate progress, many leaders subconsciously find that it is better to map out solutions to problems than the other way around. Corporations are often quick to enact popular solutions such as mandatory unconscious bias training before diagnosing what exactly is preventing change in each organization in the first place.

“At Seramount, we have found that by taking an intentional approach to listen we can slow our bias and immediate need to react,” says Mooney. “Through our Employee Voice Sessions, we have been able to get candid insights from the employees of our member companies, which are then developed into key themes and insights that inform leaders as they continue to shape and prioritize their DEI efforts.”

Pitfall 3: Corporations overly rely on recycling solutions from other organizations, even if they rarely change behavior

Similar to the way humans are quick to assume they know what’s preventing change, we often jump to solutions that may or may not actually solve the root issues or change habits or thinking. Subconsciously, when problems appear urgent and overwhelming, humans tend to believe that because a certain solution has worked for us or other organizations, it will ultimately work for all. And sometimes it does, but when it comes to DEI, we’ve seen slow progress. For example, we may view metrics and accountability as extremely important pieces of making DEI a daily habit, but then find that even metrics alone isn’t sufficient for changing human behavior. An emphasis needs to be placed on the complexities of human behavior.

Monetary rewards such as bonuses are often used, yet according to Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, more than 70 studies have shown that extrinsic motivators, including monetary rewards, are not merely ineffective over the long haul but are counterproductive to our desire to learn, commitment, and motivation.

Adding change behavior into an already crowded agenda can seem like a daunting task for a CDO. There is already so much on their plates. But Seramount believes that by reshuffling their time and energy (prioritizing, assessing, and diagnosing barriers), change behavior can become a core part of their role, and that will be the pathway to achieving their organization’s DEI goals.

To learn more about Seramount’s CDO Collaborative and to understand if your organization’s DEI priorities are a good match, please contact Martha Baum.

About the Author

Stefanie McNamara
Director, Marketing Communications