skip to Main Content

Breakthrough Diversity In The Workplace Requires a Mindset Shift

Ok folks, I don’t know what else to say. I have been running from organization to organization for months on end and having the exact same conversation with leaders everywhere. I know that the vast majority of people with whom I am talking are well-intentioned and even consider yourselves as allies. You genuinely want to create diversity in the workplace. I believe that. Truly. Yet in every instance, the big “aha” is that you are the problem.

Let me rephrase that, your mindset is the problem and you have the power to be the solution.

Recently I sat with a group of leaders representing a variety of geographies but within the same industry. They had just received a report from industry leaders that rated the industry overall as struggling in some way with diversity in the workplace. The measures of success included recruitment, retention, career progression, or lacking a welcoming climate, and spanned many categories: women, underrepresented racial minorities, veterans, people with disabilities, and people who identify as LGBTQ. The respondents rated their industry as rife with challenges, but their own organizations as above average.

When comments were shared about barriers that prevented more advancement with their diversity in the workplace initiatives, external variables were identified as “the culprit.” Things like: “We can’t hire more people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups because we are in New York City, and it’s too expensive for people to choose to move here.” Or, “People of color do not want to live in Omaha, Nebraska, because we don’t have enough diversity here to here to constitute a community.” Interestingly, there is no evidence that was surfaced in this study, that geography plays a major role in keeping people from pursuing an attractive career opportunity. In fact, there was evidence to the contrary.

The mindsets of the respondents seem to be the more glaring barrier. First, the lack of awareness about their organizations’ cultures related to diversity and inclusion is a major concern. Second, the mindset of leaders that assigns blame to external factors for not achieving organizational goals is really, really concerning. Neither is it surprising, but as long as barriers are “out there” then we may never internalize the fact that our results may be in response to choices we ourselves have made.   

Shifting Our Mindset

Diversity efforts in organizations fail because we use the same cognitive models to implement them that created the problem in the first place. Most diversity programs are built on one of two cognitive models—the Diversity Model or the Deficit Model. These models, or cognitive paradigms, are commonly referenced in literature that focuses on drawing attention to limitations of current systems and suggesting more progressive approaches to enhancing student experiences in K-12 and higher education.

The Diversity Model is the traditional paradigm from which most diversity programs got their start. It focuses on increasing representation. Programmatic efforts garner a lot of visibility but fall short of reaching organizational goals. It is the go-to model for organizations that assume that the answer is to increase representation through the pursuit of strict numeric targets.

The Deficit Model is the belief, often unconscious and unexamined, that people in non-dominant groups have less ability to be successful and require special accommodations on behalf of the dominant group to allow them full participation.

A 2016 article in The Atlantic illustrates the pervasiveness of this paradigm. The article shared the results of a study where white college students were surveyed on their opinions of their non-white peers. The perception of urban Hispanic and black students was that “they did not work hard enough to improve their life circumstances.” The widespread nature of this belief systems wreaks havoc. By the time a person is in the workforce, it is likely that they have been subjugated to the negative impact of the manifestations of this model as it is translated into behaviors by educators, peers, and managers. It often uses incentives to motivate members of the dominant group (people with hiring authority, responsible for operations budgets, etc.) for hitting quantitative goals. It fails, however, to emphasize the continuous need for awareness.

The Equity Model realizes the power of personal beliefs on organizational practices and the existence of institutional systems that produce uneven outcomes for people in non-dominant groups. Strategies in this model include changing individuals’ cognitive frames and developing new accountability metrics. New measures assume quantitative and qualitative measures, and, more importantly, take a different approach to the process of identifying the metrics and then assigning rewards for achievement of them. For instance, in many U.S. organizations, assessments are being challenged due to glaring examples of colonialism that influences our systems.

Questions are informed by “legitimate research methodology” meaning that people in dominant groups decide the “correct” questions to ask to determine the “most important” measures of success to “us.” Then people in non-dominant groups respond to those predetermined questions, supply answers that are responsive but may not even address the real issues with which they are contending.

An alternative approach is to shift the mindset about the process, not just the output or actions. Engaging people from non-dominant groups as part of the research team shifts the balance of power, allows the right questions to be surfaced, asked, and then used to inform action.

While well-intentioned and valuable progress has been made by people and organizations operating from the Diversity or Deficit Models, it is clear that developing programs and metrics based on them alone is not leading to the outcomes we seek. Contemporary wisdom comes from a more fulsome understanding of how power and privilege impact systems over time coupled with years of data on diversity goals unachieved. It is incumbent upon leaders to make continuous investments in education and individual skill-building.

To continue doing the same things expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. Shifting mindsets isn’t easy work, but it’s well worth the effort it takes to finally break through barriers and gain true diversity in the workplace.  


Download the eBook: Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Trends

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

Back To Top