The Unseen Challenge of DEI: Inclusion vs the Ticking Clock

February 22, 2022

There is a huge invisible challenge facing DEI today. That challenge may best be described as Inclusion vs. the Ticking Clock

We know from over 300 one-on-one conversations with DEI directors all over the country that while teams are learning the facts of DEI, they’re not applying the knowledge to create an inclusive environment. What accounts for this?

Attached to this question is a huge Ticking Clock: We need to act sooner than we might think. To quote the poet Prageeta Sharma:

“Americans have an expiration date on race the way they do for grief. At some point, they expect you to get over it.”

As an industry, we’ve been signaling to our teams that improvements in organizational diversity and equity can make up for a lack of improvement in inclusion. In order to take advantage of the momentum of the last two years, leaders need to own up to this. We’re using the word “strategy” to kick the problem down the road. It’s time we picked it up before the country stops paying attention.

Every week, I talk with multiple chief diversity officers (CDOs) at Fortune 500 companies. Recently, I was speaking with a savvy and diligent executive who summed up the above-mentioned problem brilliantly.

She had spent the last few months making phone calls to CDOs at other major organizations, asking how they were measuring inclusion – and coming up short with every phone call. The answer again and again was: “we don’t know how.” This echoed what I’ve been hearing from nearly all of the 300 leaders in DEI I’ve spoken with nationwide. 

According to a Harvard Business Review article from 2012, current DEI training and outcome measurements fail to consider the factors required to create a truly diverse workplace.

The article states: “A study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had ‘no positive effects in the average workplace.’ Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same.”

Not much has changed since then.

Even in laboratory environments where DEI interventions are conducted as carefully as possible, a recent meta-analysis reviewing 418 such experiments concluded that “much research effort is theoretically and empirically ill-suited to provide actionable, evidence-based recommendations for reducing prejudice.”

The methods we’ve been relying on simply aren’t working in practice.

Since the conversation around diversity outcomes is mostly taking place within businesses and organizations, DEI professionals are creating policies aimed at producing key performance indicators (KPIs) that they can show to the leadership. Typically, this looks like metrics around the number of diverse hires or how effectively the pay gap is closing.

Unfortunately, these data points simply aren’t sufficient.

They don’t speak to the underlying emotions at the core of a diverse workforce: a sense of belonging, willingness to collaborate, or how likely an employee is to stay at the company. As such, inclusion is not moving forward because DEI, as an industry, lacks the ability to generate and communicate the results of its programs in terms of inclusion and belonging.

This issue is not insurmountable, especially when you consider that dozens of tools exist to measure emotional interconnectedness. So what is the roadblock? Why are we having trouble keeping pace? 

Some organizations simply don’t have the bandwidth for anything more than checking the boxes of legal policies and hiring practices. The more nuanced elements of inclusion seem too difficult to apply to the business, so they retreat to more measurable outcomes, such as more diverse teams or reductions in the pay gap.

The problem is, these metrics don’t reflect the reality of those in the workforce.

After Dr. Timnit Gebru’s termination from Google, employees described, in their letter to management, how more diverse hiring cannot erase the discomfort of feeling like they do not belong. Similarly, while efforts to close the pay gap are a positive step forward, if someone feels ostracized from their peers, they won’t be happy or successful in that environment.

As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, notes:

“just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing. And just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.”

Inclusion is not the vague and unchartable space we think it is. 

There is a lack of understanding around the ability to quantify “softer” measurables, such as empathy and emotions. The DEI community is in a position to tell their organizations that it is quite possible to measure inclusion – they just might not know how to yet.

This missing understanding stems from a lack of interdisciplinary collaboration between DEI strategists and social scientists (eg. neuroscientists and psychologists) who measure emotions and empathy. This collaboration requires investments in academic consultants that go beyond two or three sessions. I would argue that for every three DEI hires in a company, there ought to be one social science position created to support HR and DEI consultants in measuring inclusive mindsets. It’s what many social scientists have dedicated their lives to.

At Empathable, we’ve found that one of the most vital elements of our engagements is the application of an empathy-based measurement framework. This is because empathy is highly learnable – much more than we think. As empathy researcher Jamil Zaki emphasizes, empathy is a muscle that we learn to train, not a skill we’re born with. That means it helps to: 

  • Build consistent habits that foster inclusive mindsets; 
  • Apply quantifiables. These might include self-reported measures and sociometric questions, such as “How likely would you be to take Colleague X out to lunch?” This method was suggested to us by renowned psychologist Sarah Gaither, to measure the growth of in-grouping.

When considering how to quantify changes in empathy, the challenge isn’t finding a system of measurements. It’s having knowledgeable experts who can help you choose and apply the right measurements for a given context. For example, there are many different questionnaire frameworks to measure empathy. According to the Stanford School of Philosophy, these questionnaires highlight various forms of empathy and how it’s understood. The popular Hogan questionnaire focuses on mentally understanding someone else’s emotions:

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With the right minds at the table, such measures could be applied to reimagine the content, frequency, and measurements involved in DEI training. Ultimately, over time, this would lead to an improvement in team performance. 

In a DEI context, where progress and buy-in can feel nearly impossible, tools like this become all the more important. Tying these inclusion measures to business outcomes is the next step, and we’re working on this vigorously.

It’s clear to us that this outcome is possible, and the Ticking Clock confirms its urgency. 

When we deepen the sense of belonging in a group, employees will be inclined to stay at an organization longer. According to research from the University of British Columbia, people who report feeling isolated from their workplace show a stronger intention to quit and lower commitment to the job. By improving a sense of belonging, there will be concrete, visible progress in diversity and equity, and the subsequent organizational improvement in not only retention but also revenue. 

At Empathable, our team uses psychology, neuroscience, and the outer limits of artistic design to create interactive spaces within which to learn. These experiences are designed to promote empathy across perceived “differences,” including socially-constructed divisions such as gender, race, and age. The immersive process helps participants to contextualize their inner biases to the people around them, which increases inclusion.

Schedule a Demo to learn how to invite empathy into your organization.

Special thanks to Anushri Kumar, Savannah Johnson, Deb Fiscella, and David Kessel for their support in writing this article.