In recent years, the call for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives has become more pronounced in the corporate world. While these efforts are essential for fostering inclusive workplaces, we feel that it is important to discuss the associated effect that the expectations and pressures associated with leading DEI initiatives can have on leaders while implementing and administrating these initiatives.
The Rising Significance of DEI Initiatives
DEI initiatives aim to create workplaces that celebrate diversity, ensure equal opportunities, and foster inclusivity. Organizations worldwide are recognizing the importance of diverse perspectives and backgrounds in driving innovation, improving decision-making, and enhancing overall workplace culture.
”As organizations increasingly prioritize DEI, leaders tasked with spearheading these initiatives find themselves facing elevated expectations and pressures.”
As organizations increasingly prioritize DEI, leaders tasked with spearheading these initiatives find themselves facing elevated expectations and pressures. They are often expected to bring about meaningful change within the organization, address systemic issues, and champion inclusivity.
Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review indicates that despite the prestige and compensation associated with spearheading DEI initiatives, professionals engaged in this work often experience significant burnout. This burnout contributes to a high turnover rate, with individuals typically staying in DEI positions for an average of only three years. But why is that?
Navigating Cancel Culture and Public Scrutiny
In today's socially conscious landscape, leaders in general and even more so leaders in DEI-focused roles may experience the anxiety of navigating cancel culture and public scrutiny. Every decision and action is inspected, and the fear of making mistakes that could lead to reputational damage adds an extra layer of stress.
Claudia Cooney, Lead Director for RightTrack, explains that one obstacle is the genuine concern individuals have about potentially offending others. This concern often leads people to avoid discussing uncomfortable topics altogether due to a lack of knowledge and confidence.
Cooney further elaborates on the difficulty by pointing out the consequences individuals may face for making mistakes in discussions about DEI. She notes that public figures have been publicly criticized and faced severe consequences for what is deemed inappropriate behavior or language. This fear of repercussions can deter individuals from engaging in meaningful conversations about DEI, as there is a perception that making a genuine mistake could have serious professional and personal consequences.
Balancing Priorities and Resource Constraints
Leaders in general must juggle multiple priorities while often dealing with limited resources. Implementing effective DEI measures requires leaders to navigate complex organizational dynamics, manage resistance to change, address systemic issues, and foster inclusivity—all while balancing multiple competing priorities and resource constraints.
This can be mentally taxing as it demands constant attention, strategic decision-making, and emotional labor to create meaningful and sustainable change within the organization. Additionally, leaders may face challenges such as confronting biases, managing difficult conversations, and advocating for marginalized groups, which can further contribute to the mental strain associated with DEI initiatives.
The fear of causing offense
According to findings from The Edelman Trust Barometer 2022, a global survey encompassing over 36,000 participants across 28 markets worldwide, 60 percent of employees anticipate CEOs to address controversial social and political matters publicly. Additionally, 65 percent of respondents expect CEOs to engage in conversations and policy debates regarding issues related to prejudice and discrimination. Trisch L. Smith, global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Edelman, emphasized the importance of company leaders playing an active role in discussing topics vital to their employees, customers, and the broader public.
However, Smith also highlighted the pressures surrounding these discussions, noting that individuals may avoid addressing uncomfortable subjects due to fear of causing offense or facing repercussions for mistakes. She emphasized that many leaders have remained silent to avoid potential missteps, ultimately failing to address critical issues.
Impact on Personal and Professional Identity
The role of leading DEI initiatives can become entwined with a leader's personal and professional identity. The constant demand to advocate for change may lead to a blurred boundary between work and personal life, resulting in a lack of separation and potential burnout. As leaders invest significant time and effort into advocating for change, their commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion may become deeply ingrained in who they are as individuals and professionals. This fusion of personal values with professional responsibilities can blur the boundary between work and personal life, making it difficult to separate the two spheres. Consequently, leaders may find themselves constantly immersed in DEI efforts, even outside of traditional work hours.
DEI work is not a one-time project; it requires sustained effort and ongoing commitment. The continuous nature of this work and the pressure to show continuous progress within diversity, equity and inclusion can create a sense of never-ending responsibility, contributing to chronic stress and potential mental fatigue.
How can we address the issues?
Open Communication: Encouraging open dialogue within the organization about the mental health challenges tied to DEI leadership can help destigmatize the topic. Creating a supportive environment where leaders feel comfortable seeking help is crucial.
Collaborative Efforts: Distributing the responsibilities of DEI leadership among a team can help alleviate the burden on one individual. Collaboration fosters a sense of shared ownership and allows for diverse perspectives in driving initiatives forward.
Training and Resources: Providing DEI leaders with training on mental health resilience and access to resources such as counseling can equip them with the tools needed to cope with the challenges they may encounter.
The leadership of DEI initiatives is a significant undertaking that comes with both fulfilling aspects and potential mental health challenges. Organizations must recognize the importance of supporting their leaders working to implement DEI initiatives, as well as their leaders working in formalized DEI Manager positions, to ensure that these individuals can continue to drive positive change while maintaining their mental health.
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SHRM. (2023, December 21). Workers expect more conversations on DE&I issues, study finds. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/topics-tools/news/inclusion-equity-diversity/workers-expect-conversations-dei-issues-study-finds
Clooney, C. (2021). 55% of People are Too Scared to Talk About Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace for Fear of Saying the Wrong Thing. RightTrack. https://righttracklearning.com/fear-of-saying-wrong-thing-at-work/
Cancel Culture: How Leaders Can Overcome the Fear of Speaking up. (n.d.). https://pulsely.io/blog/cancel-culture-how-leaders-can-overcome-the-fear-of-speaking-up
Weeks, K. P. (2024, January 24). Why DEI leaders are burning out — and how organizations can help. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2024/01/why-dei-leaders-are-burning-out-and-how-organizations-can-help
2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. (2022). Edelman Trust Barometer. https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2022-01/2022%20Edelman%20Trust%20Barometer_FullReport.pdf