A Boost DEI Might Need

Best-selling author Dan Goleman argues why many diversity efforts could benefit from a compelling sense of purpose. 

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and of the forthcoming Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, companies poured more than $50 billion into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. This often took the form of revisiting organization-wide policies and hiring experts in DEI. The conversation around DEI was a tense but hopeful one: In the best of moments there was a sense that perhaps, instead of turning to protests, businesses could help tackle bias from the inside out.

Four years later, the conversation has shifted. In 2023, the Supreme Court challenged affirmative action in colleges and universities. The basis of the case was whether DEI—or rather the aims through which it is achieved—leads to another form of inequality.

Regardless of people’s opinions, many companies have shared a hard truth: Many of the corporate DEI efforts they initiated haven’t yielded the changes they had hoped for. Senior Executive reports that major corporations have faced intense—and very public—pushback against their DEI initiatives. This pushback has ranged from the everyday questions that come with organizational change to viral social-media posts chastising companies for focusing on DEI instead of other hot-button issues such as pay and work-life balance.

At the time, Dionn Schaffner, chief diversity officer at software company Bonterra, told Senior Executive that the complaints come in three buckets:

  • Denial (“This isn’t a problem”)
  • Disengagement (“This isn’t MY problem)
  • Derailing (“What about these other problems?”)

Experts agree that the best thing leaders can do is to see the complaints as an opportunity to clarify why DEI matters. After all, no major change initiative succeeds without a clear and compelling sense of purpose. Meaning, values, influence, and communication play pivotal roles in making organizational changes of any kind, and especially so for new culture initiatives.

This might be a cause of failure in DEI efforts. While many companies have relied on programs and targets, such as ERGs and hiring practices that aim to foster more diverse representation across the organization, few organizations have shared the specific values and core sense of purpose that help DEI become a core part of the culture.

As one leader recently pointed out, this “leads to additional bureaucracy rather than a genuine sense of belonging.” In other words, it’s that sense of belonging that actually makes DEI work. Lacking that, DEI becomes just a laundry list of policies with very little attention to the motivations, blind spots, and beliefs that drive our mindsets and behavior

Vaishali Shah, the VP of workforce diversity and Inclusion at international HR-consulting firm Randstad Enterprise, says, “There still is quite a bit of work to be done in terms of making sure that there is proper alignment, and that there is proper support for the work that needs to be done.”

One might ask: Is it enough to repeat in your organization the ratio of group X in the general population – or is it necessary also to make sure those from group X feel welcomed at work?

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.