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.