Fears of DEI: Working Past Them So We Can Move Forward

Author: Sinduya Sivayoganathan

When I first entered the DEI space, I was terrified. I was terrified I might say something wrong, that I would mess up, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to please everyone. For a while, I let my fears rule my personal and professional life. But recently, with the help of my new job, my network, and my colleagues, I’ve discovered that my fears, though valid, have often stalled me from taking action and prevented me from learning. This realization was accompanied by another one: my fears are not unique. They are common and shared by many who engage with DEI efforts. According to a Harvard Business Review article, fear and hesitancy from Leaders and employees are often common barriers People Leaders face when making the business case for DEI and DEI related decisions (Harvard Business Review). 

At Lunaria, we help organizations understand what DEI looks like for them, and resource them with education and analysis throughout their journey. In doing so, we have encountered three common fears that People Leaders and employees face when starting their DEI journey.

1. Fear of Messing Up

The fear of messing up can motivate us to do our due diligence, but it can also prevent us from taking action. As social-political contexts continue to evolve, we are seeing a rise in demand to push back against the inequitable narratives that have long been dominant in many workplaces, opting instead for more inclusive ones. As a result, we face the challenge of unlearning the prejudiced ideals that  continue to exist today and earning inclusive narratives and courses of action. But as with any learning experience, we might make some mistakes along the way. And that is okay. DEI is about continuous learning, understanding and accepting of different experiences and perspectives, with the goal of ensuring a space where everyone is fully respected and included. 

 To move beyond fear and take accountability, we need to be open to making mistakes and committed to building processes that ensure we are being receptive to feedback (IIRP). Creating inclusive spaces requires that we receive feedback when we make mistakes and respond with appreciation, acknowledgment for our mistakes, correction if possible, and a plan to learn in order to do better next time. In an organizational context, this can involve reflecting on whether there are processes in place to collect feedback on our DEI efforts, deciding how you will address feedback, and reflecting on what practices or processes are in place to ensure both individual and organizational accountability if a mistake is made.

2. Fear of Change

Fear of change is common, especially in the workplace (Paycor). We spend so much of our time getting used to how people operate in the workplace and how to navigate organizational cultures, that when change occurs it can be scary. The intention behind DEI efforts is to create a more inclusive and equitable culture, practices, processes, and ways of operating. As such, this results in changes and sometimes these changes can elicit fear among employees; for example, long-term employees have often worked hard to learn how to “fit in,” face adversity, and navigate the organization’s culture in order to be successful in their role. DEI changes can elicit fear among employees, rooted in the uncertainty of how these changes will impact how they interact with others and whether they will be able to navigate the changes to the organization’s culture.

When engaging with DEI, it is important to address this fear of change among employees and leaders. You can start by measuring and understanding what your employees are afraid of when it comes to DEI and some of the causes behind these fears. Additionally, you should encourage employees and leaders to get involved in the process of updating the systems and changes you are proposing. Engaging your employees throughout your DEI efforts, by asking for their participation in ideation, brainstorming, and problem-solving, can help to alleviate their fears, as well as help them to better understand and adjust to the changes that might result from your DEI efforts. Most importantly, frequent and consistent communications will help your employees understand what changes they can expect, so they can prepare, have the opportunity to ask questions, and get the support they might need to support your DEI initiatives.

3. Fear of (Negative) Perceptions

Last, but not least, we have the fear of negative perceptions. The fear of negative perceptions is loosely linked to the fear of making someone (or a group of people) feel ignored and unheard; it revolves around what others may perceive of DEI efforts and how it can make them feel. This fear can be related to employees in minority groups worrying about DEI efforts as being solely focused on them, and that it may bring up assumptions of favoritism or priorities over other colleagues. As a result, they may fear that their colleagues will get upset if they perceive these efforts as a minority group receiving extra attention or assistance that they themselves are not privy to. Alternatively, employees who are part of majority groups may feel as though they are being ignored in DEI efforts, and DEI leaders may fear the possibility of DEI efforts causing feelings of reverse discrimination among these employees. Often, we see the fear of negative perceptions influence the actions that are taken. However, addressing this fear is very important in allowing your DEI initiatives to flourish. 

Clearly defined goals and purpose, as well as open and frequent communication with your stakeholders, is the first step to proactively addressing negative perceptions. This includes clearly defining what DEI means for your organization and for your stakeholders, as well as what it does not mean. Oftentimes, these negative perceptions, while valid, stems from a misunderstanding that DEI creates disadvantages. However, a clear definition and understanding of your DEI purpose and goals openly communicated with your employees and stakeholders can help limit these perspectives and increase employee support and engagement.

The fears we may face when engaging with DEI are valid and understandable. DEI, quite frankly, is hard, and at times intimidating work. However, DEI is an important change-maker in the world we live in. Engaging in DEI is necessary for inclusive and equitable social structures and cultures; stalling and inaction are no longer options.  Converting fears into a perspective that allows for (un)learning, accountability, and acceptance is the first step in addressing them.

Interested in how you can begin your DEI journey or address your DEI challenges? Book a support session with us!

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