DEI Deconstructed, by Lily Zheng

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I’ve been following Lily Zheng (they/them pronouns) for years on LinkedIn to get their DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) insights, and their book is even better. They call out the DEI industry for failing to live up to their own saying that “intentions do not equal impact”, because despite the best of intentions, DEI as an industry has had minimal impact, and possibly even negative impact in costing billions of dollars while provoking a backlash.

Their passion for making an actual difference shines through with lines like “I am radically impatient and uncompromising when centering those negatively impacted by systems.” And yet, despite the lack of progress, they remain optimistic that “people can change and grow, that systems can adapt to undo inequity rather than perpetuate it, and that we can both build and fight our way to a better world.”

Zheng identifies several DEI failure modes through five questions that fail to get asked in this space, and then spends the rest of the book answering these questions based on their experience:

  • “What are we trying to achieve through DEI work?”
  • “What ought we do for our employees, customers, and the world?”
  • “What is the role of power and the powerful in making a change?”
  • “How should we approach identity and difference?”
  • “What does the work look like when it’s done effectively?”

Zheng starts by answering the first question through defining measurable outcomes for diversity, equity and inclusion, as we can’t achieve greater impact without being specific about what we are trying to build. Their choices:

  • “Equity is the achievement of structural success, well-being, and enablement for stakeholder populations, including employees, customers, institutional investors, leaders, and local communities.
  • Diversity is the achievement of a workforce composition that stakeholder populations trust and feel represented by on all levels.
  • Inclusion is the achievement of a felt environment that stakeholder populations trust as respectful and accountable.
  • Achieving any of these requires a strategy that dismantles historical inequities and meets people’s unique needs.”

On the question of power, Zheng recognizes that “If we are to achieve DEI in the organizational sense, we will need to engage critically and often with power” because “power is the potential to influence or compel people or events”. But power comes in many forms, and Zheng lists several forms of non-formal power, such as expertise, information, charisma and influence, that can be deployed to achieve DEI outcomes.

To do so successfully requires understanding the levers of power within the existing organization that can be used for change. Zheng takes a systemic approach in understanding an organization’s structure (centralization and formalization of decision making, and complexity of organization), culture (how distanced are those in formal power from the front line workers, how unified and interdependent do people in the organization feel, and how much do they try to avoid uncertainty and failure), and strategy (the choices that people with power make). They summarize with: “Knowing how strategy, power, culture, and structure interact allows us to reverse engineer outcomes. If we understand each piece’s role in creating a status quo, we can work effectively to create different results by reshaping and rearranging those pieces.”

Zheng’s approach to identity was also refreshing:

I couldn’t care less what identities these people have. It doesn’t matter if they have privileges. It doesn’t matter if they have marginalizations. All I care about is that they do their jobs, eliminate inequities, and make things right within the environments they hold responsibility for. … individuals must be stewards of the system within the environments they hold responsibility in [and answer the question] “Am I fulfilling my responsibilities to eliminate harm and make my environment diverse, equitable, and inclusive?”

Their emphasis that we need everyone continues in the next chapter, where they identify multiple roles necessary to successfully drive a DEI change in an organization.

  • “Advocates “break the ice” on hard-to-discuss issues and inject momentum into movements.
  • Educators use movement-related information to increase the ability of stakeholders at different stages in their learning journeys to make change.
  • Organizers help well-intended groups attain the critical mass required to achieve specific goals.
  • Strategists equip other roles with the big picture and facilitate decision-making.
  • Backers make decisions that resource, support, and add legitimacy to movements.
  • Builders create new policies, processes, and practices that don’t yet exist, while
  • Reformers change and improve that which is already present.”

Those with formal power might play the roles of backers, builders or reformers, while those with informal power can fit into other roles without necessarily being the fire-breathing advocate e.g. I see myself in the educator role, sharing what I’m learning with my clients as I engage with this material.

I particularly appreciated Zheng’s focus on trust as the key ingredient for organizational change, laying out different paths for high-trust, medium-trust and low-trust environments.

  • In high-trust environments, where stakeholders trust leaders to recognize problems and follow through on commitments, change is relatively linear: “Assess the Present”, “Tell a Story”, “Experiment Carefully”, and “Iterate, Celebrate (successful outcomes) and Reiterate”.
  • In medium-trust environments, there are two core tensions, “the tension between legitimacy and power and the tension between stakeholder patience and intervention effectiveness.” Zheng recommends leaders with formal power put skin in the game by making commitments with consequences, and creating and empowering stakeholder groups to hold them accountable. Then they can follow the high-trust playbook, but start with small wins to build trust between the accountability groups and the formal leaders.
  • In low-trust environments, Zheng’s advice is to get to a medium-trust environment by having leaders apologize for what has gone wrong, and cede power to the advocates; nobody trusts the leaders enough to follow them, so the way to move forward is to empower others that have earned that trust.

This book was a clear and readable introduction to DEI work with practical advice on using interventions to achieve measurable impactful outcomes. I highly recommend it to anybody interested who wants to shift from good intentions in this area to driving measurable impact, as Zheng is an experienced practitioner sharing their wisdom from the field on what actually works.

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