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Being a change agent is hard. Being an organizational diversity and inclusion change agent can be extra hard because diversity and inclusiveness is often seen as a liberal agenda.  As a former D&I change agent inside an organization, many of whose seniors leaders were not only politically conservative but intellectually and organizationally conservative, I know what it’s like to be viewed as an upstart activist with “an agenda” — one exacerbated by age and gender bias in my case. Not only does this view place D&I at risk of being marginalized or watered down, but also it points to two critical problems that need to be addressed:

1.     Lack of senior leadership buy in – if that’s where the attitude lies

2.     Lack of understanding that superior results uniquely obtained through an investment in D&I are upheld by science and don’t require a particular belief system or set of political values to provide meaningful return on investment.

While addressing any such organizational potholes on the road to success, the ride would be smoother if D&I change agents also adopted the following effective communication behaviors:

Know your agenda. Being accused of “having an agenda” almost always implies the accusee is up to no good, motivated by some secret nefarious purpose and hatching evil plots. However, the truth is that everyone has an agenda. An agenda is simply a set of goals or a plan, as in meeting agenda. Isn’t having goals and plans a key element of effective leadership? The real question is, what is your agenda? Do you champion D&I because of your moral beliefs about right and wrong? Because you have witnessed or experienced what happens to employees and leaders who don’t enjoy an inclusive work environment? Because you’ve seen the evidence about the superior results D&I offers and you’re dedicated to excellence in your organization? All of the above? Identifying your full, honest agenda will provide you with clarity and equip you to be a more powerful, effective leader.

Own the perceptions, and call them out with transparency. Knowing your agenda will also equip you to avoid defensiveness if you’re accused of having one. You can easefully respond: “Yes, I do. An agenda is simply a set of goals or a plan. My agenda is [fill in the blank]. Tell me, what’s your agenda?” Having this conversation out in the open takes the power away from the accusation and allows stakeholders to be more conscious about their motivations, find common purpose and embark more quickly on the important task of alignment or new direction.

Get curious about what’s under the words, and ask. One of the ways that progressive (liberal) and conservative cultures clash is that conservatives tend to value stability and order over change, while progressives tend to more highly value change and possess more of the psychological trait of “openness to new experience.” Both orientations are needed for organizations – and societies – to function optimally. “Activism” can be simply defined as the active pursuit of a cause (also known as an agenda!). Technically, then, everyone not only has an agenda, everyone is an activist to some degree! However, the word has typically been used to describe people who are more direct in their tactics and advocating for change; not for people who advocate in more subtle ways or to maintain the status quo or return to an earlier state. Once again, if you’re accused being an “activist,” you can take the undermining power away from the statement by clearly defining the term and articulating exactly what cause or goal (agenda!) you are pursuing. Curious inquiry can be another approach: “Tell me more. Help me understand what ‘being an activist’ means to you. And how is that problematic, in your view?” You may receive some invaluable feedback about your strategy, timeline, or communication style that may serve you in being more effective long term and gaining better traction.

Words and accusations only have power to harm us if we believe them, or they point to a grain of truth. Gaining clarity about your truth and being willing to go into the words – instead of resisting them – is a much more powerful and efficient way to move change that creates a world that works better – for everyone.


  • rob jones says:

    Perhaps the best response to being called an activist is, “It takes one to know one.” The following, Susana, from my website:

    As in the familiar political, “left” vs. “right,” agendas are carried by “activists” on each side of the aisle. It’s only the nature of the activism that ranges between violent or nonviolent, overt or covert.

    The concept of activism is engendered in the nature of the Diversiphile vs. Diversiphobe intercultural struggle. It is central to The Diversity Paradigm, a competition or pushing between the cultural philosophies inherent in homogeneity and heterogeneity. Diversiphiles often talk about “resistance” to diversity as if it were fundamentally wrong, while Diversiphobes often see “diversity initiatives” as a foray into a cultural sovereignty. The Diversity Paradigm agendas, strategies and tactics have a lineage that go back to the American Civil War.

    • Susana Rinderle says:

      Agreed Rob! I also think it’s beyond intercultural and involves a power struggle. I’ve been getting more interested in dissecting where the “right” and “left” come from in terms of worldview and how we need both, but are too far off balance towards the right. Have you seen or read Johnathan Haidt’s work? Check him out — apparently “liberals” are higher in a personality trait called “openness to [new] experience”, which aligns with your description of Diversiphiles. Cheers!

      • rob jones says:

        You’re on the right track, Susana. Power is the inherent issue in any struggle. It’s why America’s ‘white’ culture group is often referred to as the “dominant culture.” That’s not a quantity measure as in predominant, but a qualitative power assessment of control over those in minority cultures.

        Haidt’s very interesting. He starts explaining culture by separating what is cultural from what is organic, then begins drilling down into one slice of the Big Five personality traits, a slice that’s friendly to the Liberal D&I Agenda and Advocacy. But he’s taken an interesting route (one of many) toward precisely what I’ve been teaching, except he stops short of putting a name to it in his TedTalk.

        His message? Toward the end he quotes what he calls profound ancient Asian wisdom: “Neither be for nor against…the struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.” He then gives a prescription stopping just short of naming that mental position. In modern western civilization, it is called “neutrality.”

        Haidt’s discussion of culture and neutrality as a remedy for the liberal vs. conservative struggle embodies the need for also remedying the Diversiphile vs Diversiphobe intercultural struggle. Haidt is urging a CultureNeutral approach to undoing the cultural war that’s been escalated by The Diversity Paradigm.

        • Susana Rinderle says:

          Hi Rob — your take on Haidt is interesting. Personally I think neutrality is the enemy of justice and truth (many examples from history and interpersonal relationships) — and also impossible for humans most of the time per what we know about the brain. I disagree that the “cultural war” has been escalated by “the diversity paradigm” (if I understand both terms the way you mean them). The diversity paradigm is a response to oppression and inequity, not the cause. I do believe we all need to be mindful about binary thinking and use our “upstairs” brain more often when it’s important — especially to discern facts from opinions and real fears from imagined ones, but neutrality is neither useful nor entirely possible.

  • Oh, geez, you hit the nail on the head with this one. “Activist” and “Agenda” is a double whammy. So important to link upper management’s real strategy with D and I initiatives (Initiative, or did I mean Agenda?). But it seldom happens in my experience.
    I’ve gone to companies where the same person will tell me D and I is important, and then tell me the 6 predominantly white schools where they do their recruiting. Boards would be wise to bring in D and I consultants to present a business case, and have a D and I professional on the strategic planning team.
    I once met with a CEO who said he was going to meet with Jack Welch the next day. I said, “Ask him for me where he thinks diversity fits. He said, “If you reward the top 10%, and get rid of the bottom 10%, diversity will take care of itself. Oi Vey! Not a clue of how implicit bias impacts the pipeline.
    Jean Mavrelis

    • Susana Rinderle says:

      Jean, high praise coming from you, I’m so glad this one resonated! Indeed I completely relate to your experience — this is why orgs need quality professionals like you and me to push back and educate, so that those who are ready to fully step into the excellence and brilliance that REAL D&I produce can get there. It does NOT happen automatically (really, there are so many example of this) — Oy vey indeed! 🙂

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