The struggle with shifting the status quo

Written by Andrea Smith

Earlier this year, I attended an event at an organisation who is well regarded for their work around diversity and inclusion (D&I). After a presentation on a recent initiative, I was speaking with one of their senior HR leaders who commented it had been the first program they’d delivered without receiving push back throughout the business.

The comment left me gobsmacked. Here was a business who has 1) been actively progressing the diversity and inclusion agenda for years, 2) has a variety of award-winning initiatives 3) have leaders actively driving the D&I agenda and for all of these reasons are 4) widely recognised as an industry leader. The overwhelming thought that rang out in my mind was this: if the best in the business are still getting push back at nearly every turn, what hope is there for those of us still laying foundations?

I sought out others endeavouring to influence around diversity and inclusion in different organisations. Were they having the same experience?

One by one, I heard their war stories of pushback and naysayers. Stories of ambivalent executives, far-too-busy middle-managers, openly prejudicial coal-face employees. Stories of all-male leadership teams who insisted they didn’t have a diversity problem. Stories of women who’d trail blazed to the top and were of the opinion that those behind them should work (read: struggle) just as much as they did to reach the same level. Stories of racist jokes shared (and laughed at) in open forums. Stories of ‘what about the men’ and ‘it’s not a business priority’ and ‘that’s not realistic’. Of course, they all had notable successes under their belts and had found champions to support them along the way as well. But each and every D&I practitioner I spoke with had experienced (and struggled with) those who remain fundamentally unconvinced by the organisational merit of diversity.

I was sharing my findings with Diversity Practitioners Association President, Darren Hooper, over lunch recently. At the end of my lengthy monologue on the myriad ways pushback manifests in our line of work, Darren perfectly articulated one of the most challenging elements of the whole equation. “Often the naysayers are the people we work with every day, they’re our smiling colleagues.”  

Darren was right. Those who voice their dissatisfaction, descent or disinterest are rarely motivated by their desire to disrupt, but rather their deeply held personal beliefs, sense of fairness and sometimes even fear. Between the policy and the programs and comms plans and change management it is easy to lose sight of the fact that our work focuses on shifting the status quo. And change is easier to resist than it is to accept, especially when it cuts to the core of who we are as individuals.

Yet, regardless of the motivation behind the resistance and backlash, the challenge remains the same for D&I practitioners: how do we convert the naysayers and manage the pushback?

On November 22 the Brisbane D&I community will try to answer this question at the Diversity Practitioners Association’s second masterclass event. To help us do this we’ve invited esteemed professionals from the academic, corporate and community sectors to share their views on what they’ve seen work when it comes to winning hearts and minds around the D&I agenda. We’ll then have the opportunity to workshop a variety of scenarios (aka a sample of our collective war stories) and develop our ‘kit bag’ of skills around influencing those who haven’t quite signed onto the D&I agenda… yet.

If this resonates with what you’re experiencing in your own world, I hope you’ll join the conversation on November 22. All the details here.