Penny dropping moments: Creating a DEI Ripple Effect in a Global Organization

By Bobby Bovell, Partner & Chief Consultant at Living Institute

2023 has been a busy year. I have traveled to a range of countries across the globe and ended up getting stuck in various airports on many occasions.
As I spend time waiting for flights, I tend to reflect on deliveries for clients. The moments, during trainings, where we see the penny drop for leaders and employees alike always stick with me.
I’m talking about that almost euphoric feeling I get when I know sustainable cultural transformation is happening.
Something like this occurred in a project I led during 2023. It was a glimpse at a DEI ripple effect, in a massive global organization, spreading across functions, business units, and in regions with a cacophony of nationalities.
This experience reaffirmed my belief that a key element, for that real culture change to take root in organizations, is that leaders understand and accept the importance of their individual self-awareness and how an inclusive leadership style will benefit both themselves and the organization as a whole. 

Wanted: Before-and after-effect

 The client was very clear at the beginning: They wanted to see a real impact.
They were keen for initiatives to go beyond just being inspiring trainings and to reach the sweet spot where behavior change would enhance company culture. The job to be done was to create tangible results across multiple layers of the organization.
We engaged in a deeply collaborative approach, with leaders first, that eventually allowed us to see the DEI agenda and progress of various functions and units being positively influenced in a kind of ripple effect. Our strategy was anchored in a structured process that aligned the company’s goals with the multifaceted nature of its diversity.
In our journey with the client, we recognized the importance of both identity diversity related to gender, race, and ethnicity. And cognitive diversity, which values different ways of thinking and problem-solving.

The challenge was to enable employees to see that identity diversity and cognitive diversity, rather than being mutually exclusive, are often two sides of the same coin, forming a kind of double effect and feeding off of each other.  

“The training provided him with a safe space within which to develop a shared language for tackling misconceptions and misunderstandings and he gained the benefit of concrete tools to enhance his own self-awareness and spot unconscious biases that were negatively impacting collaboration, productivity, and his ability to utilize his team more effectively.”

When the penny dropped

In many DEI processes, we experience skepticism and pushback towards methods or even the efficacy of the entire field of expertise.
This project was no exception. In this case, a leader did not see the relevance of the initiative. This participant questioned the need to delve into an area of discussion that was deemed to be outside the remit of the company’s concern.
The objection was raised, ‘Isn’t this a private matter rather than a business issue?’
However, DEI sessions tend to start open conversations between the members of a team relating to these somewhat sensitive topics. During our sessions together this leader got insights into other people’s biases as well as his own.

He was exposed to surprising disparities relating to the ways in which he was perceived by others and his own self-view as a leader and colleague. This is where the penny dropped.
This leader began to understand that addressing these so-called private issues, opinions and experiences was business critical. The training provided him with a safe space within which to develop a shared language for tackling misconceptions and misunderstandings and he gained the benefit of concrete tools to enhance his own self-awareness and spot unconscious biases that were negatively impacting collaboration, productivity, and his ability to utilize his team more effectively.

This leader was positively surprised that this ‘soft’ topic could have such a huge impact on the company’s core business.
I’ve seen this happen time after time, when leaders see the importance of reflecting on the signals, they may unintentionally be sending, which prompts a leadership paradigm shift. It’s always a pleasure to see individuals go from being sceptical about how DEI makes a difference to a greater awareness of how an inclusive leadership style increases employee engagement.

I sense their excitement as they discover why a DEI toolkit is necessary and how to use these tools in various leadership scenarios or team collaborations to enhance company culture as a whole. 

Initiatives and Tools for Sustainable Change

  • Equipping Leaders: Leaders were provided with tools to manage change and stakeholder expectations effectively. This included training sessions focused on enhancing leaders’ self-awareness and an understanding of psychological safety in the workplace.
  • Board-Level Strategy Anchoring: The DEI strategy was rooted at the board level to ensure top-down commitment and integration within the overall company strategy. This was done whilst balancing the need for buy-in at all levels of the company, ensuring that multi-functional and autonomous teams were not restricted by top-down restrictions.
  • Addressing Unconscious Bias: Tailored programs were designed to tackle unconscious biases, aligning them with company values, business challenges, and strategic objectives. This initiative was crucial in cultivating an environment where diversity is seen as a lever for high performance rather than a checkbox exercise.
  • Psychological Safety and Self-Awareness: We emphasized the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, facilitating an environment where all employees feel valued and able to contribute their best work.
  • Cultural Awareness: Recognizing that ‘one size does not fit all’, our approach was tailored to respect and incorporate different cultural contexts, understanding that diversity means different things in various regions.
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The Ripple Effect: Expanding the Impact

This project’s success was marked not just by instant changes, but by the sustainable ripple effect it created.
By giving leaders the right tools and embedding DEI into the fabric of the organization, we saw a notable shift in how diversity was perceived by both management and employees and how it was valued across the company.

Our journey in this project underscored the critical importance of adopting a multi-dimensional approach to diversity and inclusion. It highlighted that real change requires a deep commitment at all levels of an organization, from the boardroom to individual teams, and a recognition that diversity is not just a policy but a vital component of a high-performing, innovative, and inclusive workplace.
The success of this project serves as a testament to the power of structured, culturally aware DEI initiatives in driving meaningful change in a global business landscape.

It is all about the businesses seeing the bigger picture when Diversity is seen as a means of creating lasting value, as a means of effectively managing change, and as a tool for greater productivity.
It all starts with those individual aha moments ripples in the pond that flow into a sea of possibilities creating equitable futures for all.