How To Build Lasting DEI In The Workplace

Without trust, differences divide rather than unite. Here are two actions you can take today to develop trust and create an environment where diversity can thrive.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work isn’t new to the world of business, but 2020 revealed, unquestionably, how far we still have to go. Diversity practitioners and HR departments have been working within corporate America for decades, so why has meaningful change been so slow?  

Unfortunately, many diversity trainings are passive — listening to engaging presentations, going through interactive activities with coworkers, and hopefully learning something meaningful. Some organizations may not even go that far. At its worst, individuals click through slides in a self-paced course, take a quiz at the end, and sign a pledge to be, do, or think differently. 

Lasting change takes more than content consumption and the click of a button. At the core, creating an equitable workplace has to start with trust. A 2007 Harvard study by Professor Putnam found that diversity, on its own, has a negative affect and even lowers trust. It’s no surprise that bringing together people from different backgrounds with varying life experiences can easily polarize rather than connect. In fact, the 2020 Trust Outlook® research found that 85 percent of people believe trust is important to have a high-performing team and yet more than half of people want to work with people who are a lot  like themselves!  

Without trust, differences divide rather than unite. However, where trust is built, not only will the negative affects diminish but a multitude of crucial benefits will emerge! 

Here are two actions you can take today to develop trust and create an environment where diversity can thrive: 

1. Build connection.

People are naturally attracted to those who are similar to them. It’s often more comfortable to interact with people that have familiar experiences and values to ourselves. Building connection with people who are different than us takes intention. One idea is to use an exercise called “The Trust Shield.” Participants write down answers to eight questions and then split into groups of three to share their reflections and listen to each other’s answers. 

The eight Trust Shield questions include:  

1. Background: Think of a few of the most defining moments of your life, the ones that made you who you are today. You don’t have to write the whole story, but use keywords or draw images that represent those moments. 

2. Mission: What are your passions? This is the purpose statement that drives your life. 

3. Values: Write up to five of your top values. These are the guiding principles by which you make decisions. Values are things like honesty, transparency, or fairness. 

4. Life Priorities: What are your biggest priorities? What are the most important dimensions of your life? Family, faith, friends, education, service, and justice are some examples. 

5. Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you excel? This can be in work or in your personal life. These are your unique characteristics, abilities, and qualities. Kick that imposter syndrome to the curb and own your strengths here! 

6. Improvements: What are you currently seeking to improve about yourself? Challenge yourself to push through any nerves this brings up for you. What one skill, if you could improve it tomorrow, would contribute most directly to your success? 

7. Life Goals: Write down a few key goals. Include at least one short-term and one long-term goal that you’re currently working toward. 

8. Legacy: If you disappeared tomorrow, how would you want to be remembered? What legacy do you want to leave behind you when you’re gone? 

After you complete this exercise, your colleague down the hall or across the building becomes someone with a name and a more complete story. You discover authentic connection, similarities, and, even through differences, your vulnerability gives the opportunity for trust to grow.  

When a team is authentically connected, it will collaborate more effectively, protect one another (even in the face of difficulty), and pursue a common mission with shared commitment! 

2. Take action.

Developing a connected culture is important, but you have to act on it. When people know each other, they’re more likely to stand up for each other because they’re not just advocating for an idea, they’re joining alongside someone they value. When you witness words and actions (small or large) that diminish human dignity, say something. It’s the little things done consistently that make the biggest difference in building a DEI culture.  

Trust isn’t a soft skill. It can be actively built and consistently reinforced. By continually fostering real connection and following through by speaking up, you co-create a trusted foundation for diversity to flourish in the workplace.