How Mindful is Your Diversity Strategy – Intentions Today and Tomorrow

A journey of D&I, like a journey of mindfulness, will have bumps, twists, turns, jams, collisions, and detours. It will also have clear paths, beautiful scenery, good company, and destination arrivals. We take the challenge with the opportunity because the benefits outweigh the costs – individually and collectively. A question for all of us is, what are our intentions for it?

2017 has been an amazing (in every way) year for D&I, particularly (but not exclusively) in the U.S. We had the painfully overt – racist gestures in baseball’s World Series, protests and violence around historic monuments, sexual power trips in entertainment and politics, and the tech industry’s diversity civil wars, to name a few. And we’ve had the surprisingly controversial – including Apple’s VP of Inclusion and Diversity, Denise Young Smith, finding herself apologizing for referring to the diversity of “12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room” as diversity of experience or Deloitte’s decision to abandon employee resource groups in favor of inclusion councils – debated as being either good for inclusion or bad for diversity. So, if we weren’t struggling enough with D&I, we are now also struggling simply to keep D with I. It’s been a tough year.

So, if we weren’t struggling enough with D&I, we are now struggling simply to keep D with I. It’s been a tough year.

As we’ve written so far, the benefits of mindfulness may be helpful to inform diversity strategy and practices through increased awareness, attention, non judgment and compassion. In this last article, we discuss an often-overlooked mindfulness practice that can make a significant impact in the tactics of today and the strategy of tomorrow – – intention setting.

What’s Your Intention?

One of the challenges to mindfulness and to D&I is that we are directed by increasingly smart media to pay attention to voices that reinforce our beliefs, which include our biases, conscious and unconscious. This isn’t surprising – we read books and watch movies we like, hang with people we like, and, as people, strive to believe what we like, or at least believe what helps us quickly make sense a world of infinite and often conflicting input. When we are considering the time, effort, and expense of D&I in the workplace, we do well to begin by deciding our intention for this investment – and our response to potential resistance and conflict. Intentions are more than goals – they reflect the “why” as well as the what, by when or how, etc. Intentions can be many things, but for D&I let’s think of them as organizational, decisional, and individual.

Organizational Intention

Intentions are how Mission and Values translate into organizational strategy. Most large organizations say they have a D&I strategy to gain “competitive advantage” with customers, talent pools, product innovation, or other similar reasons. Given the general lack of progress in D&I, one could conclude that most organizations are either strategically inept or that they engage in D&I activities simply because they feel they have to. It doesn’t have to be this way. Organizational intentions around D&I can be powerful statements of “who we are / intend to be” and, critically, why.

For D&I, an organizational intention might be “We intend to increase the diversity and inclusion of minorities and women in senior leadership because it improves our decision-making through more diverse and relevant experiences reflecting our evolving customer base.” Long? Yes… but the “because” is what counts. The because is why we do this and gives us something (and reason) to measure the effectiveness of our efforts. The why unapologetically makes the business case that relates to and embraces everyone – not just minorities and women.

The why unapologetically makes the business case that relates to and embraces everyone – not just minorities and women.

Decisional Intention

Decisional intentions happen when an important decision needs to be made. They can be matters where ethics and values are at stake like a product recall or firing an otherwise productive but damaging leader, or they can inform a difficult decision that doesn’t seem to have any good options. A decisional intention is a statement about the outcomes we intend and why we intend them. A decisional intention also facilitates fuller awareness of possible unintended outcomes and assessment of the risk. When intention setting becomes a team or leader practice, it becomes natural to pause and take the moment to return to the ‘why’ this decision is important and what is or is not at stake, rather than let the urgency or emotion of the moment make the call

For D&I, a decisional intention may be in making decisions related to hiring, assignment, development of staff, or in gathering input from unusual sources, or in questioning established assumptions – about anything. Decisional intentions aren’t made to “check the box” or created as an afterthought but are made before the decision is concluded with the intention to inform it. For example, the intention in hiring should always be to “hire the best person” (#HireWhoIWant). The decisional intention behind that, however, is to actively and collectively decide what “the best” means for this role, in context of other roles, in this company, at this time.

Individual Intention

Like organizational and decisional intentions, individual intentions can have deep and lasting impact. But, unlike organizational or decisional intentions, individual intentions are not often expressed and research shows that people are generally pretty bad at correctly inferring another’s intentions. In thirty years of HR work, I have too many times heard (and sometimes found myself saying), “That’s not what I intended.” The challenge is that, when it comes to intentions, we are sometimes unclear or and sometimes not proud of our own and so don’t share them – or we assume our clear and authentic good intent is understood by others. In my experience, the favorite team rule “Assume good intent,” is one that comes up when it’s already too late to hope it will be followed.

research shows that people are generally pretty bad at correctly inferring another’s intentions

In D&I, individual intention setting can be a valuable practice to introduce when discussing “micro-aggressions” – those unintentional insults or slights that come from unconscious biases or common cultural norms. Too often in D&I programs, people will think or say, “I better not say anything to anyone,” either out of genuine concern or just resisting a concept. Intention setting helps people get away from the trap of “I don’t want to do that…” to the outcome of “I want to do this.” The practice of setting intentions can help people clarify their intentions for themselves, which enables economy of word and deed. Exploring the role of setting and stating intentions, particularly when in doubt, can reduce the uncertainty that reduces team performance and conflict.

the favorite team rule “Assume good intent,” is one that comes up when it’s already too late to hope it will be followed.

As unsurprising as it is, it still surprises us that anyone would not understand our unspoken intention or that our own assumptions would confuse us about the intentions of others. By setting and sharing our own and proactively asking others to clarify their own, we increase our potential to gain the benefits of diversity and inclusion at work. Of course good intentions don’t outweigh low performance, but while you can improve low competence, you generally can’t improve bad intent.

Series Summary – How Mindful Is Your Diversity Strategy?

In 2016, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” stating that companies that focus on positive efforts rather than control efforts are more successful. They wrote that programs that spark engagement, increase interaction, and appeal to people’s desire to “look good” are most effective. They make a key point that controlling for bias at the organizational level doesn’t work.

It’s hard to disagree with their research and conclusions as to what isn’t working. We submit, however, that since biases and behaviors begin internally and personally, so too must their anecdotes. Increasing people’s abilities for greater awareness, focused attention, suspending emotional judgment, and for greater compassion for self and others may have a transforming effect on the effectiveness of D&I strategy.

Is this the time for Mindfulness 1.0 in the workplace? It is all the rage – but by itself it has the potential to be another passing fad. But perhaps it may inform and contribute to D&I 2.0, as well? If we intend different outcomes from what we have seen so far, it seems we do something different from what we’ve kept on doing.

If not, you know what they say about insanity…

My sincere thanks to my many sources for these articles, in particular to Jeena Cho, Rhonda V. Magee, Kristen A. Pressner, and Marjorie Derven.

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Author: Chris Altizer

Chris Altizer, MA, MBA, is a 30-year senior, global HR executive turned performance and wellness consultant. A certified teacher of yoga, karate, and diving, Chris and his partner Anne Altizer work with executives and teams to integrate performance and wellness.

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