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6 ways to build confidence and competence for advancing DEI at work

March 15, 2023
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By Jamie Villarreal-Bassett

When asked, I find most employees support workforce diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. But some, in my experience, lack the skills and efficacy to actively promote DEI at work. Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing can keep well-meaning people as spectators of DEI efforts and hinders the work of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. How can employees cultivate the courage and develop the skills needed to take action?

Studies, such as the McKinsey report, have shown that workforce DEI fosters employees' sense of belonging, drives innovation and increases employee engagement. I believe it is  a moral and business imperative to do right by people from historically and traditionally marginalized communities. But it only works if everyone participates. The following are some promising practices that I have developed and observed that I believe makes for improved confidence and competence in advancing DEI at your workplace.

Cultivate courage and build competence to advance DEI at your workplace

1. Expand your self-awareness 

The first and best place to start your DEI journey is to look in the mirror first. Question your perspective. Ask yourself what defines your identity, which identities carry power and privilege and how do those characteristics or experiences affect what you see, hear, feel and do at work. You may be committed to DEI work in your words but do your actions match your beliefs? 

It's okay if the answer is initially "no" or “only sometimes.” Honest self-assessment is required for personal growth, including cultivating an anti-racist mindset. The most crucial step is to understand where your actions are misaligned with your values so you can begin to take steps to do better next time.

When this work to expand our self-awareness is done consistently by many people, it is possible to change an organization's culture for the better.

2. Challenge your first thought

I have learned that our first thoughts in any situation are likely biased (for or against). Because we all have biases. For much of human history, we've trained to filter and categorize information subconsciously to survive. Our brains process thousands of data points at any given second.  We lean on stereotypes, patterns and societal norms to process situations quickly, often incorrectly, and with harmful effects. In my professional experience, if we start with the understanding that our first thought is usually biased, we can avert harm by questioning what we are thinking and why we are thinking certain things. 

At work, this might look like asking yourself, "Why did I just react in that way to an email?” or "Why did I think that about a colleague  when they shared an idea in a meeting?" By having your second thought challenge your first thought and asking questions such as these, we can interrogate our biases in powerful ways. 

Challenging your biases will expand your view of others in the workplace, which can lessen the chance for harm and create more equity for groups that are historically and traditionally the bearers of negative biases.

3. Make space for others

Another natural human phenomenon is self-protection. One of the best ways to advance DEI at work is to lose the ego and consider other people's perspectives first. Challenge your thoughts, but also ask questions that challenge your ego. For me, ego is the thing inside us that says “my idea is right and that my knowledge supersedes others’ knowledge.”  Is your ego causing you to exclude someone? If someone tells you how they feel, do you make it about yourself rather than hearing them? Is my ego causing me to be timid rather than advocating for others? Is my ego causing me to think my idea is the best and only idea? You may be excluding or harming others by centering yourself.

4. Go together

DEI work cannot be done to people or for people— it must be done with people. With a commitment to partnership and community. Invite as many people as possible to join you in this work—your coworkers, managers and teammates. Co-create a new reality together. Even if your organization has hired a professional DEI team or manager, they cannot do the work alone. 

To create systemic change, everyone's voice and actions have to be represented. And everyone’s voice and actions are different. Remember that people from traditionally and historically marginalized groups should not have to shoulder this work alone and should not have to carry additional labor to be your personal search engine. We all have different experiences with inequity—we all have different needs and roles in contributing to a more equitable reality. 

Invite people to participate and share perspectives at networking events, through contributions on committees and at meetings. It may mean offering structured growth opportunities to employees that have been previously overlooked. Or soliciting input from a diverse group of people before making organizational changes. Who can you invite to join you? 

5. Take the stigma out of feedback, even when it stings

Even those who have been doing this work for a long time are bound to make mistakes, including me. If you've committed to being an advocate and ally for DEI, you'll need to be open to feedback—even when it's uncomfortable. If you've misgendered someone or acted with unconscious bias, being open to feedback allows you to understand the impact of your words and actions and change your behavior for the better. 

If you're a leader, ask for specific insights in your 1:1's, create dialogue in team meetings, and consider anonymous surveys. Once you receive feedback, reflect on it without your ego, work to repair the harm caused by your words and actions, and change how you show up at work. Repairing harm can take on many different forms, from apologizing privately and publicly, to taking accountability and engaging in restorative conversations. 

Along with soliciting feedback, find a coworker who can be honest with you on your DEI journey. To do this work, you will need someone who can safely tell you what you might not want to hear. Open dialogue is often the best way to grow as a DEI advocate.

6. Do the hard thing

Finally, every burgeoning DEI initiative needs individuals to do the hard things. It can feel vulnerable to make mistakes, admit them, and even shine a light on them to help others realize that despite good intentions, their intent does not match the impact they hope to have. Talking about race, gender, visible/invisible disabilities, or other social identities with coworkers might be uncharted territory. The fear of hurting people's feelings or saying the wrong thing may cause you to remain silent and inactive. Silence and inaction are the enemies of progress and growth. Do the hard work. Be brave enough to admit what you don't know, put your ego aside, and match your actions with your intentions. 

Leaders at companies can also make this work easier by creating a culture that supports psychological safety. Where employees feel safe to be vulnerable, engage in learning, make mistakes, be held accountable, and keep moving forward in our efforts to create greater inclusion and equity.

It takes a community

DEI is not just a leadership directive—the strategy and commitment might come from the C-Suite, but the execution, the action, the governance, and the impact—that's everyone's job. 

Dialogue and governance for DEI must include all voices at all levels. I have experienced that many people support this work, but despite the best inventions, many fear saying or doing the wrong thing, so they do nothing. 

To challenge inequity and create an inclusive workplace, we all must be courageous to take action and participate as an agent of change. There can be no bystanders—everyone must do their part. 

By increasing self-awareness, challenging your own biases, calling in others, and being brave, you can create a workplace that embraces and uplifts everyone in your organization.

Jamie Villarreal-Bassett (she/her) is the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Pinnacol Assurance, Colorado’s largest workers’ compensation insurance carrier. She is also the founder of Prismatic, providing workplace DEI consulting and executive coaching. 

This article was made possible and made better thanks to editing by Alison Meyer.

Pinnacol Assurance assumes no responsibility for management or control of customer safety activities. Please ensure your business meets the requirements of all federal, state, and local laws, regulations, or ordinances related to workplace safety.

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