Over the last 10 days, Hollywood has lost four of its DEI leaders. Top diversity, equity and inclusion professionals at three studios and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Scientists were either laid off or left their roles for other reasons.
The news has – justifiably – stoked concerns that, faced with countless other pressures, businesses are taking their foot off the gas in respect of DEI. Others suggest that the surge of interest and investment in the field that followed the May 2020 murder of George Floyd wasn’t based on any long-term desire for change, that it was ‘performative’.
I don’t think that’s true – at least, not in the vast majority of cases. Our own survey, which looked at corporate attitudes towards DEI, showed that the HR professionals responsible for implementing DEI strategies in both the UK and the US were as convinced as ever of its importance and efficacy.
But I do believe that DEI fatigue is a real challenge, and that, if fatigue reaches a critical point, it can seriously undermine strategies aimed at sustaining progress on DEI and, potentially, cause DEI professionals to leave their organisations. Ultimately, businesses that take a step back on DEI as a result will be less competitive in the long term. If they pull back or simply go through the motions, they will find it increasingly difficult to recruit talent from underrepresented groups and the growing proportion of the workforce that seeks and expects a diverse work environment committed to equity. They will also risk losing current employees from underrepresented groups. Only sustained effort at DEI will yield meaningful and enduring results, such as more diverse leadership teams and the stronger organisation performance they can drive. Without sustained effort, people from underrepresented groups may not advance through organisations into those more senior roles.
But what is DEI fatigue? Put simply, it describes the stress and exhaustion that can come about as a result of an organisation’s attempts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion. Since the term ‘diversity fatigue’ was coined, reportedly in the 1990s, its definition has expanded to include broader societal feelings of exhaustion produced by engaging with DEI. It’s a natural product of working hard to drive change and engaging in a sustained way with a subject that is emotionally charged. It can also come about when we resist engaging with issues: lasting scepticism takes a toll.
Have a support system in place
Given that DEI is emotionally draining and often frustrating work, it’s crucially important that business leaders and others within the organisation who have been tasked with spearheading efforts to increase DEI are well supported, and have colleagues and mentors who encourage the efforts. It’s easy for those in senior positions to put their own needs to one side for the sake of their team and the business. But if they don’t have a support system in place, it will ultimately have a detrimental effect elsewhere.
Set small, achievable goals
The ultimate goal is complete racial and social equity across society. But attaining that goal is the result of accomplishing many, much smaller goals along the way, both in the workplace and outside of it. If we don’t think in those terms, then ‘success’ will always seem like a distant thing, and fatigue will be allowed to creep in.
Setting and hitting goals on a regular basis brings teams together, sustains individual motivation, and shows that a strategy is working. It creates the kind of momentum that is crucial for success, and a spell of fatigue can provide organisations with an opportunity to reappraise their existing goals and make small adjustments to them.
Central to this is creating targets using metrics that show tangible progress. By doing this, DEI becomes less abstract and concrete improvements can be seen. But just as important is setting goals that are contextualised: your DEI strategies must be organisation- and even department-level specific. Address those issues that are specific to your business.
Communicate loudly – and often
It’s all well and good to set goals and hit them, but if you don’t speak about how you’re progressing towards your goals, then your team may not know that their contribution is having a positive effect. Fatigue is almost inevitable when we work towards something but have no clue whether our actions are making a difference. We also run the risk of getting distracted, or diminishing the importance of what we’re doing. After all, if we never hear about something, does it matter?
In the context of DEI, constant communication keeps the team on track. It reminds everyone of the importance of the work, and helps them to understand how their contributions are making a difference, which has a powerful protective effect when there’s a risk of fatigue creeping in. Importantly, we should acknowledge failures as well as successes. Setbacks are inevitable, and effort can be celebrated regardless of outcome. By neglecting to speak about challenges, we risk hurting transparency, and therefore trust, which is the currency of any thriving culture – and vital to DEI.
Engaging clearly around your progress in DEI won’t just inspire your team and remind them of their contributions. It will appeal to current and potential customers and clients, to suppliers, and to new talent looking for their next role. A wealth of surveys show that Gen Zers, in particular – a growing proportion of the workforce – are attracted to companies that take diversity and inclusion seriously.
Take care of your team
If DEI fatigue does set in, then it’s important to acknowledge that reality and take steps to support your team. DEI deals with issues that are emotionally taxing. It can involve challenging conversations, and members of the team may have to come to terms with their unconscious biases and problematic behaviour, which can be a difficult process to undergo.
DEI works best when individuals feel safe enough to be vulnerable with one another, so if fatigue sets in, it’s especially important that they feel supported. People even need to be able to share their biases in safe spaces that allow them to grapple with them and explore other perspectives.For this reason, you may want to put in place a strategy for gauging fatigue in the team and supporting team members when they feel drained from their efforts. You may want to be vigilant to signs of low participation or engagement, or frustration. Employee engagement surveys, which are an important part of building a true culture of belonging at any time, will be especially useful here.
Progress isn’t a straight line
One reason why DEI fatigue comes about – and why some people have talked about a ‘DEI backlash’ – is because results are perceived as not having come fast enough, or reliably enough, to justify the effort. And this is a perfectly human response: we like the quick wins that sustain our motivation and firm up our convictions (which is why setting small goals is so important). But when we talk about DEI, what we’re talking about is racial and social equity, and, to state the obvious, that’s a complex thing. It isn’t something we can bring about overnight. It’s the product of sustained effort over time. And there will be those who are not used to feeling uncomfortable, or to having their perspectives challenged, who will struggle at times with change. That’s why, from the beginning, those responsible for DEI must expect their work to be both ongoing and subject to change. DEI is not a campaign or a project: it’s a cultural activity that evolves as its environment and the needs and wants of those within it evolve.
Pursued in the right way, however, all DEI efforts will bear fruit. You will make progress. Just be mindful that progress isn’t linear. Sometimes, we take two steps forward and one step back, or five steps forward, and three steps back. Sometimes we slide backwards before lurching forward. And there can be huge jumps in short spaces of time and then periods where you don’t think anything’s happening at all. We need to respect this fact. So long as we remind ourselves and our teams of the vital importance of the work we’re doing, we can continue through those spells when progress is small, and bring about the real, enduring changes that make businesses better and drive economic inclusion for everyone.