Understanding (fake) D&I Change (20>>21.c)

From systemic change to moving the needle: D&I proclaims change. However, celebrations and C-level support are not enough to generate progress. And sometimes, fake change is the issue.

We thought we knew about all kinds of change including mindful, systemic, disruptive, strategic change… Then, within just one year, we learned so much more about different triggers and the multitude of reactions they can lead to. Building upon the two previous articles of this 20>>21 trilogy, I discuss change – once more – as the core of effective, impactful and successful D&I work. For the first time, fake change plays a role as well; for we have seen an increasing amount of activities that proclaim to promote and advance D&I while their effect can be toxic, distracting or diverting in a way that hinders the systemic change needed.

D&I Campaigning for Change?

Highlighting the bright side of Diversity is a common approach to initiate or drive change: Communicating diversity facts, showcasing D&I good practices, broadcasting personal statements and other campaigning tools provide strong elements of visibility. We want to believe that positive messages can only create positive impact – and often they do and they have to. For we are working in an environment where communicating has sometimes become more important than the actual action.

This is also where the underrated dangers come in: The dynamics of filter bubbles not only lead to a limited impact of your communication. They also polarised audiences and fostered camps that already existed before, in more or less subtle ways. The open opposition that exists today for almost every claim means that Diversity messages face backlash – in particular when they are perceived too normative or when they lack a meaningful framing; as discussed in the ‘purpose’ article.

In essence: Campaigning for D&I is needed. However, it will not change people who have fundamental reservations about the topic. In other words: Campaigns do not instigate the change needed.

D&I Training for D&I Change?

Workshops with powerful interventions, e.g. about Unconscious Biases, serve as another change driver. However, after decades of education and anecdotal studies saying that ‘diversity training does not work’, reservations have grown. In addition the general learning context is gravitating towards peer learning, experiential learning and large amounts of digital learning tools. D&I experts feel as if they can simply choose from the large selection available. What is your best choice with regard to driving change?

I want to be straightforward about two things first:

  • There has always been diversity and unconscious bias training that did not work (well) for various reasons and these can be mitigated
  • There will always be a need to facilitate a personal learning and development process with individuals (and collectively with organisations) in order to achieve sustainable change

Ineffective training often uses too strong approaches – like confronting people with their own biases too early and too fiercely – or does not acknowledge the starting point of the participants and the context. Both aspects provide guidance for effective development including a gradual, step-by-step approach (like our multi-parted blended learning does) and a rigorous alignment with the organisational context (which includes the micro culture).

However, even if we do impactful D&I training & development, we still have to ask if this drives the overall change we want, need and aim at. My answer is: They partly do and we must add one more layer.

Understanding holistic D&I change

Analysing the root causes of glass ceilings or sticky floors, the racial equity agenda, heteronormativity, ageism, ableism or centrist world views – each of these take us to the fundamentals of a system. Any given organisation or society creates its own cultural values and underlying assumptions. Understanding these deeper layers and how they relate to D&I is required to be able to start a change process in the first place.

The soul of each organisation is also its most unique feature and has key relevance for D&I due to the embedded beliefs. Systemic change, therefore, cannot be limited to adjusting processes and engaging leadership. It has to allow the organisation to self-reflect implicit norms. Orchestrating such a holistic organisation development process not only leads to intrinsic motivation and authentic buy-in, it also delivers paradigm shifts that stick, i.e. sustainable change. In addition, you can win awards as one of our clients did for the gender balance cultural development initiative we created for them.

Understanding fake D&I change

Admittedly, fake change does not sound nice and people may get defensive given the associations the word ‘fake’ nowadays triggers. However, for me the term fake change adequately describes initiatives that proclaim change while they might

  • (un)consciously create toxic dynamics and hence lead to resistance or backlash (e.g. by putting inflated attention on difference as described above) or
  • (un)consciously focus on insular or marginal topics and avoid addressing the key issues (i.e. the implicit norms mentioned above).

Can you think of examples for any of the two? In order to find them, we can look at the roadmaps of organisations that have been doing a lot in the D&I field and saw relatively small impact, compared to the amount of efforts they put in. As an external expert and with our specific ENGINEERING D&I lens it is usually quite easy to point out one of the two dynamics described above, which can be found in all kinds of fields (in random order):

  • Using football as a theme or format to present female role models
  • Investing large budgets to fill designated positions with external women
  • Using slogans that bluntly suggest ‘Diversity is great – more diversity is greater’
  • Refuting the business case for diversity and insisting on corporate responsibility instead
  • Participating in dozens of external initiatives to create a positive image – and running D&I on a shoestring internally
  • Mixing performance indicators with goals, i.e. replacing a wider vision with simple numbers
  • Highlighting the number of nationalities (150+) or ‘exotic’ refugee projects (with 10+ participants)

I am aware that each of these initiatives has its merits and can serve as important elements in some D&I strategies. However, the combination of our analytical work of 20+ years and our critical reviews over the recent (3+) years shows how much the context for D&I has changed and how different the effect of D&I initiatives can be from their intention.

The other worrying trend that I have noted is the importance that is nowadays given to image, appearance and – in a way – window-dressing. Looking at the average resource split in D&I, a disproportionate part seems to be spent on channels and target group where the topic is already well received, i.e. network bubbles or echo chambers.

We must be the D&I you want to see in others

When I started to revamp D&I – for the fourth time already! – the invitation to deliver the opening keynote at the Global D&I Congress in Mumbai came in handy. For I really had to do a thorough analysis and package results and recommendations in half an hour. The Mumbai trilogy (February 2017) launched a call for identity-based self-reflection, directed at societies, companies and D&I experts, who all should base their approach to D&I on the values and principles they publicise, and follow through accordingly.

This 20>>21 trilogy amplifies the themes of 2017

  • Using D&I values to address nationalism
  • Stepping out of our comfort zones
  • Role modelling D&I

as it highlights three critical aspects for the successful continuation of our journey, i.e. the

  • Need for D&I to contribute to organisational purpose
  • Imperative to leave the introversion and deliberately think and act outside of our box
  • Importance to understand (fake) change and eventually address key issues in a credible and authentic way.

Hence, it does not come as a surprise that it concludes with the very same words that concluded the Mumbai keynote: We must be the D&I we want to see in others.


The previous articles of the 20>>21 trilogy are

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

Leaving the Introversion (20>>21.b)



Further Reading







The Mumbai Trilogy