This article is the fourth in a series. Read the first, second and third articles.

One time I had a gym teacher who, with the very best of intentions, decided to test out a new approach to foster greater inclusion. The class would be split into two teams, and each team divided into two subgroups. Looking at the names clearly listed in each quadrant, we immediately guessed what our teacher had planned: the more skilled athletes would play against one another, and my classmates who were less athletically inclined would be similarly matched up. We stared at the chart in uncomfortable silence as we absorbed this implicit assessment of our value.

Eventually, we students started to speak freely among ourselves about this arrangement. Many felt embarrassed about how they, their contributions and capabilities were viewed, and their sense of belonging in class suffered as a result. Despite being a part of a larger team, some became unmotivated. Several lost trust in our teacher’s ability to help build our capacity. A number of the students became disengaged.

While inclusion was the intention, in this case, it was not the impact.

Lessons learned for DEI implementation

Interestingly, this analogy reflects the challenges organizations face everyday when starting their DEI journeys. Many times, initial DEI-related decisions are made at the top and filtered down, and the real impacts of change can at times be unseen or overlooked. Some roles are deemed more imperative for upholding DEI values than others, and, as a result, many on the periphery risk losing their connection to DEI and the promise it holds. Pushback and resistance can occur when staff lose trust in the process.

Consequently, as an inclusion professional who values an organizational approach, I think back to this time and can’t help but reflect on the lessons we can learn. Today, I ask myself the following:

  • If the teams weren’t stratified, could the stronger members have helped lift up of those who were still developing their skills, for example, by peer-to-peer coaching?
  • Would the teams have been more cohesive and cooperative?
  • Would the motivation to achieve a common goal be stronger if everyone felt meaningfully included?
  • Could those who became disengaged have developed a growing appreciation for the learning experience, if they felt it were applicable to them?

While the previous articles in this series outline the first three steps organizations need to take when starting their DEI journey, this article unpacks what an organizational approach to DEI could look like, and some promising practices for bringing everyone along.

Step 4: Take an organizational approach

Here’s a little hint I like to share with organizations in the early stages of DEI: If you think about DEI as impacting the whole organization (which it should!) you can then apply tools and resources that serve the whole organization to help implement it. Suddenly we can look at our assets in a different way, considering how they can best be leveraged toward building more meaningful and sustainable DEI. Here are three organizational tools we can use:

1. Cultural audits

Before launching into DEI, it can be helpful to take the temperature of the organization by conducting a cultural audit. This not only helps leaders assess organizational readiness to start the DEI journey, but it also helps develop insights into stakeholder experiences and perceptions. If we consider the Iceberg Model of Workplace Culture by Stanley N. Herman, we know that organizations have formal aspects of the culture that reflect what we say we are doing (our goals, policies and procedures, etc.) and informal aspects that reveal how we really work (our values, informal interactions and group norms). In between, each member of our organization also carries beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes and feelings about the formal and informal aspects of our work. These in turn, shape our feelings of inclusion, our sense of motivation, and our connection to the larger goal.

With the support of an external auditor, DEI leaders can learn what lies beneath the surface and pre-emptively address any cultural issues that may run counter to DEI efforts. In the short-term, this will help foster inclusion internally within the organization, while modelling what inclusion should look and feel like so that staff are able to replicate it when working with clients and other stakeholders. In the long-term, this will help build a deeper sense of commitment to and ownership of DEI goals as organizations show they are willing to practice what they preach.

2. Change management

When leaders are intentional about embedding DEI in the fabric of an organization, you’ll find that over time and with growing capacity, the impacts can be felt in all areas of work — from strategic and operational planning, to day-to-day practices. With such a wide reach, it is advisable to consider DEI as an organizational change. This approach is helpful in bringing people along on the journey and ensuring that they are being supported throughout the change process, all the while, being mindful of managing a range of expectations.

A great model for implementing DEI-related changes is Procsi ADKAR® by Jeff Haitt. In this model, change must occur at the organizational level, as well as at the individual level in order to be long-lasting. The acronym ADKAR therefore represents the five outcomes that must be met so that organizations and individuals are aligned throughout the change process: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement. When staff know why DEI-related changes are happening, and they have the desire to support the change (recalling Steps 1 and 2: Knowing Your Why and Connecting the Dots), organizations simply need to offer the necessary tools, infrastructure, capacity-building and reinforcement to make these changes last. It goes without saying that clear and consistent communication is also important to build safety and trust during what can be a disruptive change process.

3. Organizational learning and development

When organizations embark on their DEI journeys, they usually tend to start with training. As resources can be tight in our sector, a particular team — such as service or outreach — is given priority due to the nature of their work and interactions with diverse external stakeholder groups. This is a practical way to gradually enter into this work. When feasible however, I suggest building the capacity of all staff as part of a larger organizational approach to DEI.

As discussed earlier, stratifying groups can carry a number of risks that could affect shared goals, team cohesiveness, formal and informal learning, and a sense of inclusion in the change process. Conversely, building capacity across the organization can set a standard for how DEI is valued, engage staff to take up the mantle, and provide them with the skills to do so. Although we don’t often think about it, administrators, fundraisers, procurement and many other functions all have a critical part to play. An organizational approach will allow everyone to reflect on their role and consider the ways in which DEI can help them work more effectively toward achieving the organization’s mission. We must also remember that training isn’t the only way to build capacity. DEI coaching can also support implementation and working through complexity.

A word on inclusive design

One of the greatest challenges to any change – DEI or otherwise – is resistance to top-down decision-making. When change is downloaded to staff, people feel a loss of control and a sense of destabilization. This can be counteracted by including staff in the DEI design process. This sets the stage for a more enduring approach to DEI, which allows staff to feel heard and validated, valued for their insights and experiences, and accountable for its success.

Next month we will take a break from the series for a February 13th webinar, Empathy: The Secret Sauce of Effective Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The series will return in March, covering the fifth step for launching into DEI, engaging communities. If you have any questions or want to get in touch in the meantime, please contact me at!

Christina Sackeyfio is the Founder and Principal Consultant at Boldly Inclusive. She is a Canadian Certified Inclusion Professional, who worked for over a decade on social impact and innovation projects as a non-profit leader, capacity builder, community engagement specialist. She sees inclusion as a lens for everything from strategy to program design and delivery, and believes that if we stretch our thinking about DEI, it can be a way of doing rather than a thing we do.