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Taking Steps to Address Resistance to Organizational DEI Efforts

Protestors with fists raised in the air
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash


What do these comments have in common? 

These are perceptions and we can’t take action based on perceptions.  

We strive for excellence and we don’t want to be perceived as lowering the bar.  

Our focus is too narrow; it doesn’t seem inclusive of everyone in the organization. 

Your sample size is so small that the margin of error is enormous. 

In our organizational development work we do a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) assessments, helping organizations to center DEI. We have heard all these comments and many more as we help advance these efforts. Often the leaders we work with recognize these comments, as do we, as forms of resistance to potential changes related to DEI, and they want our help in bridging what seems like a divided organization that is being wedged apart by conflicting perspectives of DEI efforts. At DeYoung Consulting Services we developed a tool (linked below), based on our experiences and research, to help leaders think through what might be needed in these cases. 

On one “side” of the divide are staff and leaders who lean into the difficult work of systems change and the uncomfortable interpersonal work needed to create more inclusive and equitable organizations. On the other “side” are those who are concerned about these efforts (the importance of them, the speed of implementation, how the changes will affect them) and hesitate to directly state their concerns about DEI out of fear of being labeled a racist, bigot, etc. And so they express their concerns indirectly. (Want to read our insight into why the above comments are forms of resistance? Read our footnotes at the bottom of the article.) 

To our clients this can feel like a tale of two organizations, but when we start exploring to discover people’s honest perceptions, we see not two distinct sides, but a spectrum of perspectives along people’s personal DEI journeys. While it’s tempting to build a bridge that offers a path for people to step from point A to point Z, we have found that a broader, non-linear response is needed, one that is more complex than training. 

When our clients dig into this work, they’ve been faced with deeply held beliefs about how the world is and should be. And while change management best practices certainly apply to advancing DEI, leaders who have tried moving the DEI needle may agree that change management on its own isn’t enough to address these deeply seated beliefs. However, when we looked for best practices in addressing DEI resistance with an organizational development lens, we didn’t find any that felt comprehensive. So, we created a tool that we hope organizational leaders and DEI professionals will find helpful. It is based on a review of three models or approaches relating to individual and organizational change and/or building understanding across controversial topics. Four components emerged from our review as important in addressing employee resistance to organizational DEI efforts: 

  • Clear and Ongoing Organizational Communications About DEI Efforts 

  • Building Empathy 

  • Education on DEI Related Topics 

  • Accountability for Clear Competencies and Behaviors 

These four components should not be seen as chronological steps; most or all can, and probably should, be taken concurrently and on an ongoing basis. 

Please view our tool, “Framework for Addressing DEI Resistance in Organizations”. We hope this helps to paint the complex picture of what organizations can do to address resistance to their DEI efforts. 

Download PDF • 199KB



Here’s our insight into how the comments mentioned at the top of the article can be perceived as forms of resistance to DEI work:

“These are perceptions and we can’t take action based on perceptions.” 

We have heard this after presenting comprehensive findings from stakeholder interviews and focus groups that explored people’s perceptions regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. Their concern seems to convey an unwillingness to take people’s ideas, thoughts and feelings seriously, specifically as they relate to overt and systemic racism at the organization. We often acknowledge that the qualitative data we present are indeed perceptions. Even if they’re based on false information, they represent people’s realities and deserve to be addressed, be that through organizational changes or just transparent communication. 

“We strive for excellence and we don’t want to be perceived as lowering the bar.” 

We have heard this in reference to some staff who were questioning the need for a focus on diversity. Their concern expresses a fear that if their organization hires more diversity, the quality of excellence will go down. Increasing diversity in the workforce may indeed change the feel of an organization, because you’re inviting different lived experiences and thus new ways of thinking. However, the perception that quality would suffer is based on bias. On the contrary, research shows that diversity enhances organizational performance.

“Our focus is too narrow; it doesn’t seem inclusive of everyone in the organization.” 

We have heard this from stakeholders when organizational leaders make an effort to focus DEI work on race equity. Their concern seems to convey a fear that white staff would be left behind. We typically guide our clients in deciding where to focus their efforts first, depending on what “differences make a difference” to their organization. Many organizations begin strategic DEI efforts by gathering a baseline of data, and if the data show racial disparities, then race could be an appropriate place to begin DEI efforts, with the intention of expanding the focus at a later time. 

“Your sample size is so small that the margin of error is enormous.” 

We have heard this when we present comprehensive findings from stakeholder interviews and focus groups that explored people’s perceptions regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. Their concern seems to imply an unwillingness to take qualitative data (stories and narratives) as seriously as quantitative data (numbers and charts). We often explain the differences—advantages and disadvantages—of both methodologies and caution against applying quantitative statistical analysis to qualitative data. 


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