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When Tough Times Strike, Sustain Your Company’s Culture of Inclusion By Doubling Down On DEI

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Use your transformative leadership skills to simultaneously meet two imperatives: (1) safeguard the infrastructure set up to support inclusion in your company, and (2) make visible the modeling of inclusive behaviors.

Part Three of a three-part series. Read about how to kickstart your journey and build momentum

When a major disruption or crisis strikes, the culture of inclusion that an organization has built can all too easily erode. Hard-won achievements in DEI may be lost. The organization can revert to its previous state, as leaders concentrate so closely on basic survival that resources are diverted away from DEI efforts that suddenly seem like “nice-to-have’s” rather than “must-haves.”

Reversion can exact a high toll. People from diverse groups start wondering if DEI programs and rhetoric were nothing but empty promises. Morale declines, and productivity stumbles. Talent defects to competitors. Negative word of mouth spreads among current and prospective employees and customers. Any progress the organization has made toward tapping into the innovation, collaborative spirit, and sense of belonging essential for weathering a crisis starts to unravel.

The lesson: Even if a company’s financial performance is strained, doubling down on DEI, not cutting back, is the better course of action. By deepening their commitment to their inclusive culture, leaders boost the odds that results gained from DEI efforts will hold firm in bad times as well as good.

How to sustain your company’s culture of inclusion in tough times? Start by mastering the art of transformative leadership.

A Closer Look at Transformative Leadership

Transformative leaders exhibit a unique blend of capabilities. These make them a singularly effective force for advancing an organization in its DEI journey and sustaining its DEI results under adverse conditions. Drawing from many years of work with our clients, we’ve organized these defining capabilities into three areas:

• Resilience: the ability to bounce back quickly from adversity and to maintain clarity, calm and resolve amid extreme disruption

• Adaptability: the capacity to modify one’s behavior and responses to changed or dynamic situations

• Emotional Intelligence (EQ): a deep awareness of one’s self and others, resulting in an authentic and genuinely human response to leadership situations

All three traits are vital, but EQ may be a senior leader’s secret weapon for doubling down on DEI when the going gets tough for their organization. Why? Emotionally intelligent leaders possess a profound understanding of their own and others’ needs and motivations: They understand what makes people tick. Leaders high in EQ don’t go down the rabbit hole of distinguishing “hard” versus “soft” skills. Rather, they know they must engage “the heart, the head, and the hands”—the emotions, the intellect and the practical effort—to secure their people’s attention and commitment. The behavior of emotionally intelligent leaders reflects their core values, which remain constant, and they lead with a purpose-driven vision. What’s more, these leaders aren’t afraid to draw on empathy to understand other people’s viewpoints and experiences despite superficial differences, and to share others’ emotions.

The combination of resilience, adaptability and EQ enables leaders to simultaneously meet two imperatives vital for sustaining a culture of inclusion during difficult times: safeguarding infrastructure that supports inclusion and making the modeling of inclusive behaviors visible. Meeting these imperatives at the same time is akin to taking care of the “building” (the organization), while also taking care of the people living within that building.

Safeguarding Inclusive Infrastructure: The Systems Perspective

To foster a culture of inclusion, an organization may set up a variety of infrastructural elements. Here are just a few examples:

• Communication methods that demonstrate cultural competence and transparency

• New roles, reporting structures, and DEI expectations and accountabilities for senior leaders

• Processes and mechanisms for gathering and using corporate-level feedback on the organization’s DEI performance

• Onboarding, mentoring, succession-planning, and training programs for high-performing employees from diverse groups

• Inclusive recruitment strategies

Transformative leaders make sure that these forms of infrastructure are maintained and perhaps even reinforced, not neglected, during tough times. They also adopt a systems perspective, particularly in their strategic talent management efforts. For instance, they understand that a leader in an important role who has strong EQ skills such as empathy may leave some day, for any number of reasons. They aren’t seduced by personalities, because they know that success in sustaining DEI progress isn’t about only the person in a particular role. It’s also about the role itself—including how the required outcomes and measurable performance metrics are spelled out in the role definition—and the connections among roles.

In short, it’s about the system. Indeed, the strategic talent management approach that we use within our own organization for recruitment and promotion decisions calls for clarifying our company’s strategy first, then defining the roles essential for executing that strategy, and only then identifying the people who may be the best candidates for delivering the necessary outcomes of each role.

These leaders also understand that safeguarding and doubling down on inclusive infrastructure doesn’t have to take the form of financial moves only, such as allocating more funding to a particular program. It can include changes that have powerful and widespread ripple effects, owing to the system dynamics in the organization. For example, a company reconfigures its reporting relationships so that the Chief Diversity Officer reports directly to the CEO. The CDO thus brings his or her front-line experience and knowledge to the table, and becomes an ongoing contributor to conversations at the highest levels about how to sustain DEI progress. The organization also expands its professional-development policies and processes to include opportunities for skip-level promotions for high-performing employees from diverse groups. As a result, junior talent or people just starting out in their careers from these groups are seen earlier and faster than in the previous configuration.

Safeguarding—and even increasing investment in—inclusion-supporting infrastructure helps keep the culture strong in the face of adversity, in several ways. As we’ve noted, it prevents executives from reverting to previous ways of leading and managing when big challenges arise. But equally important, it also establishes accountability among leaders at all levels for continuing to demonstrate inclusive behaviors. That way, DEI efforts can keep delivering results beyond just “meeting our diversity numbers.”

Making the Modeling of Inclusive Behaviors Visible

Inclusion doesn’t just happen in an organization, and it doesn’t automatically hold firm when trouble strikes. Instead, inclusion arises and remains strong when C-suite leaders not only safeguard inclusive infrastructure but also model inclusive behaviors every day on the job—in good times, for sure, but especially in bad times.

Leaders who model inclusive behaviors:

• Demonstrate respect, appreciation, and empathy for others around them, especially during periods of ambiguity or turmoil.

• Remain curious about the perspectives and experiences of people who aren’t like them, and seek to learn more about these perspectives and experiences.

• Continually educate themselves on what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean as applied concepts.

• Swiftly address any DEI-related issues that arise, such as gaslighting or microinvalidations.

• Are willing and able to receive–and learn from—one-on-one feedback from employees (reverse mentoring) on how they’re doing on DEI.

• Reward inclusive behavior in others.

When inclusive behavior is modeled, it becomes highly contagious: Others observe it and see the positive results. They realize that their leader is authentic and genuine. And they’re inspired to adopt similar behaviors.

Spotlight on Empathy and DEI

For all too many people, the more power they gain in their professional lives, the less empathy they have for others, a topic that communications expert Lou Solomon explored in her Harvard Business Review article “Becoming Powerful Makes You Less Empathetic.” This inverse relationship between power and empathy is profoundly damaging in leaders seeking to sustain a culture of inclusion in their organization, particularly under highly adverse conditions. CEOs and senior executives seeking to create strong followership among younger generations especially would do well to remember this fact.

Empathy enables leaders to see the world through another person’s eyes. Leaders from groups that have not been marginalized need empathy to understand and acknowledge the difficult experiences that people from marginalized groups have had. Equally important, empathy helps leaders appreciate and even feel the emotions that such experiences evoke. Informed by this perspective, leaders can more easily identify the actions needed to ensure that everyone in the organization is included, valued, and welcomed—and knows it.

Questions for Your Next Moment of Introspection

• When your organization experiences hard times, what typically happens to its DEI initiatives and inclusive infrastructure? Does the organization divert resources away from them–or double down on them?

• How emotionally intelligent are you? If you’d like to strengthen your EQ, what’s one step you could take to do so?

• What has happened to your capacity for empathy as you have gained power in your professional life? (Be honest!) If you believe your capacity for empathy has ebbed, how might you restore it?

• To what extent do you personally model inclusive behaviors in your organization? How might you improve in this area, if needed?

Marriott: The Case for Shared Impact

Though the pandemic forced hospitality giant Marriott to resort to massive furloughs, its leaders showed their commitment to the company’s workforce, which comprises a U.S. workforce that is roughly 66% people of color. One way they did this was through initiating severe cuts in their own compensation. In March 2020, Marriott announced that the CEO’s and executive chairman’s salaries would be suspended for the rest of the year, and senior executives’ salaries would be slashed by 50%.

As Cornell University finance professor Steven Carvell pointed out, the announcement was an example of shared impact—in which companies acknowledge that all stakeholders will feel the effects of a disaster, and that sharing in those effects tangibly is important. We maintain that such sharing can foster a strong sense of unity and establish an historical “event” that is referenced—sometimes for years—as a statement of the organization’s values and leadership.

Why Hiring and Promoting for EQ Is a Potent Succession-Planning Tool

Leaders with strong EQ excel at fostering a culture of inclusion, by making sure that what their organization says about its culture (such as “Everyone is welcome here”) matches what employees actually experience (“I’ve been fairly included in promotion opportunities”). Yet as Jon Katzenbach and Carolyn Black pointed out in their Organizations and People article “Leaders Should Revisit the Works of Three Corporate Culture Pioneers,” people with strong EQ are often overlooked in hiring and promotion decisions. This may be owing to mistaken assumptions about emotional intelligence—such as “Empathetic people can’t make tough decisions” or “People who regulate their emotions don’t have any passion.”

To develop a robust leadership bench, transformative leaders make a point of hiring and promoting people with strong EQ skills.  This is extremely important, as Gen Z employees evaluate an organization’s long-term commitment to inclusion by observing potential successors to senior leadership—measuring how visible, authentic, and consistent they are. If an organization fails to embed EQ as a core competency in its succession planning, it risks bleeding itself of talent, innovation, and growth. Purposeful and effective succession planning ensures that the individuals advancing to more senior positions or stepping into vacated roles embody the leadership traits needed to sustain and possibly elevate the organization’s standard for diversity, equity, and inclusion—especially through tough times.


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