(A full presentation on the Strategic Matrix for Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives is available free at http://bit.ly/v3o6jM )

Executive attitudes toward, and priorities for, diversity are the most important variables for what can successfully be accomplished in improving an organization’s value for diversity and leveraging diversity for organizational success.  Executives operate in an environment where they are subject to a wide variety of pressures and perceptions that affect how they react to diversity in the workforce and customer base and impact how the instrumental value they assign to diversity for achieving their personal and organizational goals.

Some examples of sources of external pressures for diversity and inclusion executives attend to in the organization, marketplace and/or community include: customers, suppliers, competitors, local/ regional/ national politics, industry trends, local/regional/national demographics, national and global economies, legal entities and social/ state/ national laws ((e.g. affirmative action, EEOC, OFCCP audits, etc…), natural disasters and more.

Some examples of sources of internal pressures for diversity and inclusion include: employee networks and informal groups, bargaining units, management changes, mergers/ acquisitions/ reorganization/ downsizing, diversity champions at various levels of the organization (Board, executive level, management level, supervisory level, and individual contributors), ++

These aspects of the environment significantly influence executive attitudes toward diversity, affecting the degree to which an executive and/or top management team make diversity and inclusion a business priority and thus the expectations they have for action. This is a central basis on which they prioritize diversity skills as an important leadership competency.  Of course, their own personal experiences, skills and competencies in working with diversity interact with their environmental scan in ways that can highlight or diminish the perceived importance of diversity skills and initiatives.  The result is an intersection of their attitude toward diversity and the sense of urgency they feel to act on diversity.

Attitudes toward diversity can be broken down into four strategic response sets:

  1. Avoiding, resisting and denying diversity
  2. Minimizing the risks of diversity through self-protective /defensive focus on compliance and assimilation
  3. Accommodation and legitimization of diversity
  4. Proactive utilization / leveraging diversity for competitive advantage

Within each of these attitudinal sets, the urgency for organizational action felt by executives will define what intensity of intervention they will support, from occasional or episodic activities, to regularly scheduled but still freestanding activities, to systemic interventions that integrate the attitudinal response to diversity into core aspects of the business.   If they see diversity and inclusion as marginal to meeting organizational goals, then they are likely to support occasional efforts like a one-time diversity fair.  If they feel that diversity and inclusion are absolutely critical and indispensable, they are likely to support far deeper, systemically embedded activities and systemic elements. (An example of this would be ongoing business scorecard measures of success in identifying opportunities and implementing strategies to proactively leverage diversity for innovation, creativity, and competitive advantage.)

To recapitulate, executive’s attitudes about the value and importance of diversity are largely driven by their perceptions of pressures in the organization’s external and internal environment.  To the degree that efforts to increase organizational and leadership competencies around diversity are matched to the executives’ attitudes and felt urgency to act, those efforts will get the support they need.  When the executives’ perceptions of the strategic importance of those interventions lag behind the intended impact of the change effort, essential support will be missing and covert or overt resistance are likely.  Thus, if increasing executive priorities for diversity is desired, interveners may work to intensify attention to germane aspects of the environment. Among the strategies for sharpening executive attention to the subject are:

  • enumerating the diversity initiatives and successes actions of prime competitors; highlighting aspects of risk from not focusing on diversity;
  • emphasizing opportunities for enhanced personal and organizational reputation and industry leadership;
  •  focusing attention on the personal stories of employees demonstrating the negative AND positive experiences related to workplace diversity;
  • underscoring the size and speed of workforce and customer demographic trends; and
  • simply running the numbers on the cost of turnover related to an organizational climate and leadership that fails to demonstrate inclusiveness for all employees.

(A full presentation on the Strategic Matrix for Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives is available free at http://bit.ly/v3o6jM )