In the second half of 2020 and into 2021, corporate leaders expanded their inclusion and diversity programs in response to overwhelming public support for social justice causes like #MeToo, #BLM and #StopAAPIHate. Corporations made commitments—through words, actions and resources—to recruit, retain and foster cultures in which racial and gender minorities could thrive.
Now, newly empowered chief diversity officers are forced to defend themselves amid political currents that have turned against them. In 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (SFFA) that race could not be used as a factor in university admissions. This crucial ruling amplified the voices of critics decrying corporate inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) efforts as ineffective, unfair or even illegal. Thirteen attorneys general issued a statement opposing corporate IE&D plans and warned corporate leaders to re-examine practices and eliminate quotas.
Opposition to affirmative action—and in particular, diversity goals—is not new. But with an upcoming presidential election, politicians are positioning themselves as either for or against IE&D.
In the aftermath of the SFFA case, how should corporate leaders respond to the polarization surrounding IE&D? How can those seeking to create inclusive and diverse workspaces bring opposing sides into alignment? Experience has taught us, as educators and IE&D professionals, that the answer lies in using a negotiation mindset. We challenge you to consider the various stakeholders in an organization as taking part in a multi-party, multi-issue negotiation regarding the meaning, direction and implementation of IE&D efforts.
Here are three key tactics for leaders to use in an organizational context to implement IE&D more effectively:
Integrative Tactic No. 1: Be Mindful of Fixed-Pie Mindset
IE&D efforts inherently propose new ways of approaching situations that threaten those who have historically fared well in organizational life. Some majority group members see IE&D initiatives as taking something away from them or those like them. In negotiation terms, this is a “zero-sum” or “fixed-pie” framing. This view can engender resistance and friction. Leaders can mitigate this mindset by leveraging cognitive framing and by building relationships before the ask.
Leverage cognitive framing. When communicating priorities with stakeholders, leaders should focus on what is to be gained, not lost, to facilitate agreement. But moving the conversation from loss to gain is no easy task with IE&D work, given that employees may feel that their resources, identity or even core beliefs are under attack.
Imagine a sponsorship program designed to increase the number of women and racial minorities in leadership. It should be communicated as an opportunity for value creation for the entire organization. The organization grows stronger, more profitable and more competitive with the development of more employees. The new sponsorship program is a “gain frame” that will make for a bigger “pie” that all employees can share.
Build relationships before the ask. Relationship building might be seen as a waste of time by those eager to point to visible, quantitative measures of success. This is an especially acute problem in IE&D work, where there is a demand for measurable progress, even though success takes time to manifest in statistics. But relationships lead to dividends that cannot be realized immediately. Closer ties encourage more information sharing, which helps IE&D professionals better understand other stakeholders’ perspectives, fears and reservations. Too often we attempt to build relationships when we need something, but those actions can feel transactional in the moment.
Those who succeed quickly in new roles–IE&D or otherwise–build broad networks across business functions. This process of gathering information, understanding others’ interests and offering help establishes trust. Of course, the IE&D team must stay focused on moving the needle and delivering outcomes quickly, but one must remember that relationships help deliver outcomes; they are not oppositional.
For instance, consider recruiting, where an IE&D goal is to increase female and other underrepresented minority job candidates for engineering roles. Pushing hiring managers to diversify their candidate pool might be met with resistance if they do not see a problem with “the way we do things.” We tend to defend our own perspectives and approaches as fair. Furthermore, they are being asked to undertake new steps that slow the recruiting process. An existing relationship with the IE&D team might yield hiring managers who are more willing to cooperate. Repeated positive interactions facilitate cooperation through trust, such that hiring managers have confidence in long-term, positive results, even if they are not apparent immediately.
One CHRO shared that investing in improved processes during slower hiring periods would build a broader and deeper network of recruits when hiring picks up. Additionally, she sustains relationships and builds allies by recognizing hiring managers with successful efforts and encourages consistent communication on the importance of such efforts.
Relational capital has economic value for negotiators, and positive feelings following one negotiation can objectively influence subsequent negotiations. Instead of seeing outcomes and relationships as opposed, IE&D professionals must leverage relationships to achieve outcomes.