Diversity, equity, inclusion, and ethics are among the most powerful cultural components of the workplace. They are also closely related. There is no more existential question today than how our systems treat the human beings it employs and serves.
Yet many of the rank-and-file individuals within workplace systems—the people that professional development offerings are targeted to—will tell you that the professional development efforts in both DEI and ethics are too often ineffectual. In the case of DEI professional development, poorly designed and executed educational sessions can be downright scarring.
I once witnessed DEI facilitators encourage participants to “be honest and candid” about their conscious biases—“however small” in a professional development class. The topic was implicit bias, and the goal was to illustrate how we all have mindsets or world views that rely on unexamined assumptions or unexamined discomfort. After several people laid their hearts bare in a genuine attempt to understand themselves and expand their mindsets, the facilitators stood by passively while coworkers judged and criticized those who dared to share.
So much for team cohesion. As far as DEI development—I am sure you can imagine the cynical snorts from the people who recognized how damaging that situation was.
Ethics education in many organizations has too often been reduced to cookie-cutter offerings focusing either on outlier stories (e.g., “See this person who stole massive amounts of money from clients—don’t do that!”) or on-demand modules focused on technical questions of rule elements and procedure. The latter suggests the adage that what can be measured doesn’t always matter, and what matters cannot always be measured.
Knowledge v. Wellness
Most organizations have done a decent job of imparting “knowledge” of DEI and ethics by providing data, policies, rules, and real-life examples. What isn’t being addressed as often as it should be is the “wellness” of the organization’s DEI and ethics cultures. Wellness is the critical dynamic of how DEI and ethics really play out—in the moment—in the boardroom, the middle manager offices, the cube farm, and the mailroom.
This “real-time/front line” dynamic is the true cultural driver in organizations.
The initial impulses inside heads in “real-time/front line land” are rarely rules, policies, data, and processes. Rather, what controls in the moment are often subtle or subconscious cognitive processes occurring outside an individual’s control and regular thought process. The human brain is conditioned, as a survival mechanism, to make quick judgments influenced by personal background, experiences, memories, and cultural environment.
High levels of cortisol and testosterone inhibit leadership skills. Anxiety increases threat perception. You may be asking how do these things impact DEI and ethics? All ethics issues, and many DEI situations, involve a balance of important, sometimes competing, interests. Stress and anxiety reduce our ability to recognize and balance various interests—a key skill for all team members.
A good example of low-level threat perception is the neutral email. An individual reading an email may perceive it to be antagonistic and/or dominating, triggering feelings of anger or resentment in the reader. Later, upon re-reading the email hours or days later, the individual no longer views the email as threatening or hostile. It was likely that the person was feeling anxious or stressed when first reading the email, which increased their threat perception.
The neutral email dynamic has happened too often in my career. Now I know to pause and observe my physical and mental state when an email triggers a negative response internally, as my brain chemistry may be influencing how I perceive an otherwise neutral situation.
When I get stressed or anxious, I work to remind myself that allowing my cortisol levels to rise will interfere with my ability to lead and succeed, giving myself an incentive to get out of the negative loop in my head.
Moral licensing can be a culprit in both the DEI and ethics arenas. Moral licensing is akin to the “I’ve been good on my diet, so a few bites of ice cream here and there are OK.” line of thinking. But it is more pernicious because it is not always conscious.
For example, a department leader may hire an underrepresented individual for a position, then subconsciously rely on that hire as proof the department has an inclusive approach or culture. The risk is that the department leader no longer pays attention to DEI considerations in the next hiring, because they have already proven they are inclusive in their practices.
An example of conscious moral licensing is the employee using overtime hours worked as justification for taking longer lunches because they’ve “earned it.” Not only is this injurious to team dynamics, if the individual involved is a member of an underrepresented group, but a risk also arises that other team members who lack awareness can subconsciously see the moral licensing as a diversity issue, not simply an ethics issue.
Another dynamic that can hinder good intentions is personality. Personality science tools like the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, and the DiSC can provide practical framing and explanation to help individuals craft more intentional “in the moment” responses.” These tools continue to be used, despite pushback from psychologists due to their simplicity, because of their practicality and helpfulness to people.
For example, how strong an individual’s preferences are on personality science spectrums suggests how empathetic the individual will be in a particular situation. Empathy—being able to see another person’s point of view and genuinely valuing that person’s interest—is a critical skill in DEI and ethics situations, the latter always involving a balancing of competing interests. Some individuals are more “hard-wired” for empathy than others.
The more skilled an individual is at empathy and recognizing and valuing the interests of others, including institutional interests, the better their decisions will be. Strengthening team members’ non-dominant skills for use in “real-time/front line land” improves cultural dynamics in DEI and ethics.
Reenergizing DEI and Ethics education
Providing practical, in-the-moment tools to address subconscious fear, brain chemistry dynamics, cognitive decision-making patterns, and personality science dynamics are key to DEI and ethical wellness. Fortunately for all of us, some of these DEI and ethics tools are surprisingly fun and easy.
Further, integrating DEI and ethics continuing education where appropriate is energizing, as it provides a non-siloed and more natural approach to how individuals actually experience the workplace and the world.
Though live, in-person, educational formats are always preferred, because they more easily generate a sense of physical and psychological connection in a group, hybrid (on-demand coupled with live online) DEI and ethics professional development offerings can work well when crafted with sophistication. This is particularly important in our current public health situation.
Most importantly, and existentially, the dehumanizing and sometimes violent nature of our public dialogue and public behavior today serves as a moral and ethical call upon organizations to reevaluate and reenergize DEI and ethics education efforts. In addition to reevaluating and growing the wellness of the organizational culture, of which DEI and ethics are a part.
Organizations and institutions can play a powerful role in setting the values and norms of our society.
Only by recapturing a greater sense of connection with, and respect for, our fellow human beings will our society and institutions be well, and be something worth our grandchildren inheriting.
About the Author
Victoria Vuletich is an attorney and the CEO and founder of Ethics Squared, LLC, a consultancy focused on ethical wellness issues.