Sometimes, organizations aren’t as ready as they think they are for DEI transformation.
It’s happened more than once that we’ve facilitated a values excavation for a client only to find that an entire wing of the organization has been completely overlooked—not even mentioned by leaders discussing their actual and aspirational values. They can be the overnight staff. The administrative assistants. The adjunct faculty. The paralegals. The non-public-facing yet utterly essential people who keep your organization running, and without whom, no one else could do their jobs.
And they are invisible.
Distance is often a problem—with little to no contact among people across power levels and no relationship-building, people with the least power become invisible. One staff member reported their wages getting mixed up with the only other person of color at their firm. Urgency is another culprit. Leaders get so caught up in needing to hire now or make their numbers now, that they either can’t see the people around them, or see them only as a means to their own ends. Sometimes urgency causes a DEI values statement to get written and publicly posted in a rush, without collaboration or anyone actually knowing it exists.
We can’t become organizations of partnership, equity, and inclusion when we can’t see every human who works there. Before taking on any kind of DEI transformation, you need to start with making the invisible people visible.
Making Identities Visible
Often, our blind spots begin with our very selves. When leaders don’t see their own people, it’s often because they don’t actually see themselves fully. You can’t offer to others what you don’t offer to yourself first.
Leaders who can’t name and acknowledge the markers of their own identity won’t see how others are affected by the same markers. It’s what causes an all-white leadership team at a school to debate whether saying the n-word should be punishable, without ever contending with how race, class, and power can affect how that word is said, heard, and impactful.
When our position and power aren’t seen, then opinions and preferences pass for facts, unmoved by different opinions, experiences, or even contradicting data. It’s as slippery as saying, “I work from 8-6 so my staff needs to keep those same hours.” An individual choice or preference is projected as the “correct” way, then mandated; people get punished if they don’t comply.
When a leader has the capacity to say, “I choose to work from 8-6,” then they can hold space for others who do and don’t make the same choices as autonomous individuals with good reasons. It sounds as simple as acknowledging that someone is different from you. The foundation of DEI transformation really is that fundamental.
Making All DEI Partners Visible
To begin bridging the gap, we ask people to share time and space: employees and leaders in the same room together. We facilitate a deep listening practice so that every person can share their story with openness and vulnerability, and experience being seen and heard. For leaders, this can be a powerful revelation—seeing their people and seeing what they’ve been missing. Not just in terms of missing the opportunity for better organizational cohesion and performance, but missing out on the rich, diverse, and interesting humans who work all around you, with the fullness of their stories, triumphs, struggles, and humanity.
Seeing each other’s humanity leads to increased connection, care, and compassion—for others and oneself. Put simply, when we share the same space, we share the same conditions of that space. If they’re unequal for you, they’re unequal for me, too. If your space is harmful to some, it’s harmful to all of us.
When we look closely, we see that maintaining an invisible underclass hurts us all.
The most powerful are not immune from harm. Take a deeply power-stratified law firm as an example. In order to maintain power, the partners demand crushing workloads from their associates and staff. They perceive any requests for more reasonable hours as “whining.” But, by pushing away their staff’s needs, the partners are avoiding the way they, too, are trapped by a culture of overwork and busy-ness. Dismissing people’s “whining” is just a way to avoid their own suffering under this same system of perfectionism, isolating individualism, urgency, fear, and power hoarding.
In processing sessions, we’ve heard partners say they finally felt relief in no longer having to maintain a system where they can’t show any emotions or must have all the answers. The system that hurts people with the least power hurts those with the most power, too. “I no longer believe in telling people to ‘suck it up’ because I don’t want to live that way either,” recalled one partner. “That isn’t sustainable.”
And it’s exhausting to put all your energy into maintaining a toxic system instead of into real creativity and thriving. Living for the billable hour, which is safe and makes your value measurable, means living by the industry’s definition of success and never knowing when you’ve got enough. When you’re trapped by a predefined notion of success, you’ll exert endless energy just to uphold the system.
MJ likens it to living with a broken cabinet door in her kitchen. “It wouldn’t close all the way, I was always knocking into it, and it just bothered me constantly. I lived with it for weeks, working around it because I didn’t think I could spare the time. In reality, it was costing me so much more time to not deal with it.”
Kim says this is the kind of paralysis we see in organizations where power dynamics remain unexamined. “People in these places can’t make decisions because it’s too uncomfortable to take a risk, make yourself vulnerable, maybe even make a mistake,” she explains. “It gets to the point where no one can even order a pizza for an office luncheon; instead, they run around looking for someone with enough power to decide. We have to seriously ask them to take a hard look at how much time and energy they’re spending on ordering pizza.”
The late bell hooks once said, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” (Source).
We believe in everyone’s capacity to transform and be transformed by each other. If you or your organization is ready to see the fullness of each person’s humanity, potential, and connection, contact any member of our team today.