D&I can provide the purpose that makes the difference (20>>21.a)

Faced with a crises, people and systems tend to focus on what they truly care about. This, however, assumes that a deeper purpose exists in the first place and is shared. D&I can offer a strong shared purpose – if it goes beyond numbers and initiatives.

A personal purpose

One of my personal insights in the course of 2020 was the effect of (life) purpose – or the lack thereof – on people. I was amazed about the seemingly unlimited energy that purpose-driven friends displayed and how they saw opportunity everywhere in the often dramatic situation. On the other side, it was worrying to see the negative, destructive drive of some ‘friends’ who do not seem to have much apart from their top jobs, luxury travel or beach parties. It may sound snobbish and I am in fact aware of my privileged background and situation, but over the years I see the immense impact and vivid value of pursuing purpose both in private and professional life.

Based on my family experience, international friendship and uncompromising ethics were so natural that I did not understand the friction I experienced (at school) with ‘others’ and why pro-European activism (at University) – and later D&I professionalism – felt as fundamentally fitting to me as a person. In recent years, I have strengthened, sharpened and separated (!) both my personal pro-European purpose and my professionalism in D&I. For it has become clear that we need to be mindful of what we pursue in which context.

D&I as a purpose?

Many people perceive an inherent purpose in D&I. The supporters consider fairness, human rights and social responsibility as naturally underlying concepts. The critics, however, see political, social and moral activism as the drivers, and they challenge their relevance in a corporate context: The traditional D&I narrative is not part of the core business and neither are the colourful events, special interest initiatives and self-perpetuating ranking and awards.

Consequently, I often hear complaints from D&I experts, how business executives ‘do not get it’ and how they should make themselves accountable for Diversity. My experience, however, is that in those cases, the D&I messaging is largely based on assumptions that may or may hold true. Once we start the dialogue – open and empathetically – from ‘their’ perspectives connections, compatibility and overlap are quickly established.

To get on an agenda versus setting your agenda

An open, empathetic approach requires, however, that D&I is not considered a goal in itself and hence does not pursue its own agenda. Instead, we could or should consider D&I as a contribution in each if the context where we work: Social justice, sustainable development or – where I see the main focus and opportunity – resilient business development. Depending on the context, our messages and mechanism should naturally change and be tailored for maximum effectiveness.

In recent years, my experience has been that the unreflected transfer of paradigms and practices between different areas has caused friction. Increased activism, including through social media and special interest networks and platforms, has strengthened many stakeholders while it has alienated others at the same time. Activities have become so central to many frameworks, that they have, at times, cannibalised the purpose. In those cases, the year 2020 was experienced as a crises only whereas purpose-driven D&I seized the opportunities.

The purpose of D&I

If we expect business leaders and decision-makers to incorporate D&I on their agenda – beyond the limited social responsibility niche – we must provide a meaningful model for D&I. This requires to accept the corporate context to be different from a societal or political system, where e.g. a house of representatives is a meaningful model. Sense-making in a complex and ever changing business environment requires more than simple numeric comparisons.

Simply adding Inclusion to the equation has not been strong enough for the past ten years. Today, there is no reason to think that the different ways in which Inclusion is interpreted will lead to a substantial change any time soon: Inclusion of different diversity dimension, inclusion of different subgroups, or inclusiveness as a mind-set? Such paradigms have created diverging impressions while we need strong and clear messages.

The purpose D&I can provide in a corporate context must be developed against the backdrop of business needs.

  • Understanding the dynamics of differences in the workplace, marketplace and in the business landscape and how a deliberate focus on diversity can help tap into all kinds of potentials
  • Challenging the inherited and inherent biases, inequities and barriers that prevent business organisations from making the most of differences and how inclusive processes and behaviours can create benefits for all

This is the first part of the 20>>21 trilogy that analyses current challenges that affect both D&I and the business in the first quarter of 2021. The second part looks at LEAVING THE INTROVERSION and can be found here.


Ensuring relevance and hence creating buy-in and traction has been the goal of the Engineering D&I approach which I developed as a result of various challenges that had emerged. Find out more about the specifics on the website of my company www.european-diversity.com


Related articles

The dangers of being too normative about D&I http://en.diversitymine.eu/es-genuegt-nicht-vielfalt-zu-feiern-und-zu-promoten/

What research says about the value of a business rationale for D&I http://en.diversitymine.eu/creating-buy-in-with-a-business-based-approach-to-culture/

Thinking about the dominant, mainstream and sometimes majority groups http://en.diversitymine.eu/scaling-di-to-reach-the-mainstream/

Turning action into impact http://en.diversitymine.eu/moving-from-initiatives-to-impact/

Focus on numbers or new leaders? http://en.diversitymine.eu/how-to-walk-the-fine-line-between-role-models-and-tokenism/

Is D&I the right thing or smart business in the first place? http://en.diversitymine.eu/why-you-should-clean-up-your-di-messaging-and-how/

How well-intended loud messages can go terribly wrong http://en.diversitymine.eu/why-heidi-klum-harms-diversity-just-as-blackrock-or-head-hunters-do/