If lately it’s felt like the end of the world, that’s because it is. The Apocalypse is indeed upon us. Contrary to popular belief, the Greek word “apocalypse” actually means “the revealing”, not “total annihilation” – but when the truth stares us in the face, and the glitter blows off the sh*t underneath, something is annihilated: illusions, outdated assumptions and old beliefs. This death makes space for new ways of thinking and being, which inspire new ways of doing. “Apocalypse” does mean the end of the world…as we know it.
2020 was undoubtedly an Apocalypse. The pandemic has changed the way we work, learn, eat, dress, communicate, socialize, plan (ha!) and contemplate the future. Being sheltered in place forced millions to look racism in the face as we watched police murder George Floyd, rallying global cries for justice. Growing climate chaos, political chaos, institutional instability, and an historical U.S. election have also profoundly shifted our collective consciousness.
We need a similar shift in how we “do” diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The time is ripe to propel meaningful change and create a world that works better for more of us. However, the drive to return to the status quo is powerful. Now that Trump has been voted out, some believe 2021 automatically bodes better than 2020. However, the problems we face are immense, personal, and highly complex. When standing at the foot of a mountain whose peak is lost in the clouds, the urge to say “eff it” and go home is often much stronger than the motivation to start climbing. This is especially tempting when the mountain is overrun by hoards all shouting different directives about where the best trail lies, how fast to go, and what to bring along. It’s exhausting and dizzying.
Most among those hoards concerned with DEI are shouting about ways of doing it differently: hire this consultant, roll out that training, hire a Chief Diversity Officer, create Employee Resource Groups, say Black Lives Matter, do listening sessions with employees of color, etc. I confess I’ve done my fair share of “shouting”, given that I have clear opinions formed over 30 years in the field, about what organizations should do when they start their DEI journey.
However, there’s something more fundamental missing among all the shouting: We need to be different. The old ways of doing don’t work anymore. But new ways of doing with old ways of being won’t work either.
“Old ways of being” undermine “new ways of doing” (and reinforce “old ways of doing”) in the following ways:
- Rewarding, and appeasing, power-over hierarchies based on identity and position – Most organizations reward and placate individuals with “command and control” styles of leadership. We also defer to those who hold power based largely (albeit unconsciously) on their title, salary, connections, pedigree or gravitas. Questioning this system or behaving as if the hierarchy doesn’t exist is generally political suicide.
- Chronic fear or scarcity mentality – Most organizations are driven by a fear of impending doom, threat or lack. Fear of competitors, fear of customers, fear of technology, fear of the boss, fear of each other, or fear of losing one’s job permeate many work cultures, and extend all the way to the c-suite. The irony is that most large organizations, especially in the corporate sector, are vast repositories of abundant wealth and power.
- Chronic sense of urgency – Most organizations are infected with a frenetic pace of activity, impossible workload expectations and inhumane deadlines. Even the c-suite is not immune. Such a culture is rarely propelled by real-and-present danger or strategic priorities, but by power-over hierarchies and fear.
- Prioritizing quantity over quality – The unquestioned expectation of growth in all areas of an organization is toxic, and feeds chronic fear and urgency. Only viruses and cancers grow endlessly. Eternal growth is impossible; death and stasis are inescapable laws of life.
- Putting profit before progress – Too many DEI practitioners – both internal employees and external consultants – compulsively give clients what they want instead of pushing back when clients request work that will be useless or cause more damage. Some do this out of lack of sufficient knowledge; others do it out of fear and to appease power figures in exchange for revenue or job security.
- Lack of integrity – Many organizations, including DEI offices and DEI leaders, don’t walk the walk. Many don’t practice inclusive, equitable behaviors in how they run meetings or projects, communicate with junior people or advocate for change. Many don’t engage in self-reflection, personal healing, effective feedback conversations or assertive ally behaviors. Many participate in cancel culture, which is fear-and scarcity-driven.
An organization or team that can be DEI doesn’t actually need a program, initiative, or office dedicated to diversity, equity or inclusion! New ways of doing flow from new ways of being. New ways of being – that drive multiple forms of doing – include:
- Reducing unnecessary hierarchies, replacing them with collaborative, self-organizing ways of doing. Hierarchies can be highly effective for accomplishing quick, uniform execution. However, they’re not well-suited for realizing goals that require innovation, agility, or problem-solving, and should not be the default mode of organizing all work.
- Creating hierarchies based on leadership competence, technical expertise and good character. Hierarchies should not be based on status, irrelevant personal characteristics or unearned privilege. Leadership roles should be assigned based on the fit between an individual’s aptitudes and leadership skills, and a project’s goals – not bestowed as a reward for excellence in a technical or SME role.
- Learning and practicing nervous system regulation to reduce fear, false urgency and false scarcity. Unless you work in a hospital or childcare center, on a farm, or in an environment where physical injury is likely (including as a first responder), nothing you’re doing is really that urgent. Believing and behaving otherwise not only skews our view of what “essential work” is and who “essential workers” are, it’s quite literally killing us through chronic stress.
- Prioritizing quality over quantity. We must insist on the necessary time, reflection and research to get “it” right. We don’t need more, we need better.
- Redefining progress as “better” – in a meaningful way, for the greatest possible number of people. Organizations should define “enough” and focus on sustainability, and the highest quality to serve the greatest good. Enough already with more tweaks, features, gadgets and gimmicks!
- Putting progress before profit. DEI practitioners can say “no” to money and power figures when they insist on DEI solutions that won’t make a difference or will do harm. They can assertively and compassionately guide open-minded clients to alternate approaches that will create results that matter.
- Fierce integrity. DEI and other talent development professionals can be DEI in the ways we lead teams, organizations and change efforts – but more importantly in how we lead ourselves. The goal is not perfection (which is another oppressive old way of doing) but progress and excellence.
As I write in my poem, Instructions,
The world requires not
your clamor and clang
your doing more of the same
striving and fighting
The world requires more people “being the change”, as the tired yet profound adage instructs, yet too few of us follow. Perhaps this is because new ways of being require the most difficult task life sets for us – self leadership, self-awareness, self-love and self-regulation. And yet, those who achieve a measure of these are true change agents, for
There is nothing more radical
than sanity amidst madness
nothing more subversive
than joy amongst misery
love inside violence
So “cheers!” to the Apocalypse of 2020! May we each find our place in “being” part of the new world of 2021 as a new year dawns.