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Addressing Leadership Resistance to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

Commitment from senior-most leaders is critical to embedding and sustaining a culture that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. But all too often, leaders are resistant to DEI or simply performative in their engagement without a true investment in seeing improvements. With the economic challenges and deep budget cuts in some industries, DEI teams and budgets are inevitably on the chopping block. At such times, it becomes more critical that leaders understand the benefit of DEI to themselves personally and to the business. It often falls to change agents to bring leaders along.

Each leader holds a kind of ecosystem of beliefs—conscious and unconscious—around issues at the heart of DEI. Developing individually targeted strategies requires meeting each leader where they are on their DEI journey and understanding their belief system as it relates to DEI. For some it might mean starting with evidence-based data, analyzing the positive impact on the business, and adding in perspectives about the ethical imperative. For others, it is using the influence of clients or customers. For still others, this might involve exercising the power of personal stories.

John Kotter and Dan Cohen, in their work on successful change efforts, refer to the “head-heart strategy.” They write: “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings." [1]

To lead with purpose and passion and to challenge underlying assumptions at the deepest level, leaders need intellectual persuasion, and even more importantly, experiences that tug at the heart. How can we be strategic in how we expose leaders to disruptive experiences that prompt the deep, transformative change required to lead DEI with conviction? How can we provide leaders with opportunities to shift from resistance to commitment to DEI?

Here are a few of the “head” and “heart” strategies that I discuss in my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. When used together, these strategies can engage leaders and serve as a catalyst toward a greater support of DEI.

Head Strategies

Making a Business Case

As social justice awareness grows, with momentum building behind the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, the dialogue on DEI is shifting away from the more traditional focus on the business case to one grounded in equity and fairness. In fact, it began to seem irrelevant, and in some cases, distasteful, to lead with business as a rationale.

Still, the social justice argument does not resonate in some parts of the world and in many organizations where leadership teams insist on a clear demonstration of the economic value of DEI. In other words, before they invest in DEI, they need to see that it will directly enhance their business outcomes.

Often when people think about DEI, they only think about talent engagement and retention, and yes, an inclusive organization has competitive advantage in attracting the best talent. But the truth is, it can enhance all aspects of a business, from client engagement, to innovation, to customer service and financial outcomes and growth. At Sodexo, as we increased our visibility as a DEI thought leader, it attracted not only more diverse talent, but also new clients. Our DEI team touched over US $1 billion in business including new business development, client retention and deepening client relationships, and this in turn brought in more allies among senior leaders and managers – who wanted to be a part of the journey.

Partnering with Clients

I found that one of the most effective ways to appeal cognitively to leaders was to demonstrate the positive impact DEI could have on client relationships. One approach I used was to invite like-minded clients to speak about the importance of DEI in their own companies.

Usually, when we talk about “belonging” in DEI, we are referring to an inclusive workplace where employees feel they can belong. I have also found that organizations feel a powerful pull to belong—particularly to a group of other companies that are considered influential and desirable business partners. If that group is committed to DEI, other organizations are likely to want to join in and to be validated by them. Collectively, leaders can advance their commitment through peer pressure.

Leaning on Allies

Another motivating strategy is to influence through allies. Frequently the message is heard differently depending on the messenger. White men or members of other dominant groups can be particularly effective at delivering DEI messages as they have more access to those in power.

While it can be useful to have a member of a dominant group deliver messages in support of DEI, seeking “validation” or endorsement by the dominant group risks perpetuating existing power dynamics. Bringing power brokers along is an effective strategy in most organizations, but it needs to be carefully evaluated and managed by ensuring agency for the marginalized group.

Heart Strategies

Reciprocal Mentoring

Reciprocal mentoring is an excellent way to expose leaders to different perspectives and life experience. Through this process, leaders mentor protégés on career advancement while learning about their mentees’ realities. To sensitize its executive team, Coca-Cola Brazil launched a reciprocal mentoring initiative with fifteen Afro-Brazilians as mentors matched with senior leaders. Simone Grossmann, Head of HR for Brazil and the South Cone for The Coca-Cola Company, told me that not only did the engagement advance the careers of Afro-Brazilian employees, but it also served as a learning opportunity for the executives. The leaders “were so shocked because they just didn’t know. It revealed to them a new reality because I’m talking about senior leadership that is all White . . . So they were, like, shocked to hear that there were these micro-aggressions that people get in the day to day,” she said. And this in turn galvanized their commitment to being inclusive leaders.

After one executive mentored a woman and learned about the sex discrimination she encountered on a daily basis, he arranged for all 12 of his direct reports to mentor 12 high potential women. 9 of those women went on to become leaders within the organization – they were always capable, but the mentoring relationship heightened their visibility and educated the mentors, leading directly to career advancement. The impact of the mentoring engagement on one leader had a cascading effect in the organization.

Sponsoring Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Exposure to experiences and stories can come from disparate sources, including sponsoring ERGs that have been formed to address challenges and opportunities relevant to a specific identity group. The sponsor often serves as a sounding board and advocate for the ERG. There is value in selecting an executive who has a particular affinity for a group, especially if they are respected within the organization and can share their story on an identity dimension that the organization is particularly resistant to.

I also have found tremendous value in strategically selecting sponsors who might need to advance their own exposure and understanding of an identity they are particularly resistant to. In one organization that I worked with, an executive perceived as homophobic, was assigned to sponsor the LGBTQ Pride employee resource group. The executive and the Pride leadership were both surprised by this assignment. To the credit of both, they worked at it. When he left the company that executive said, “My biggest growth moment at this company came when I became the sponsor of the Pride group.” He in turn took his experience and learnings with him to another organization he joined and positively impacted that organization’s DEI journey.


Change happens at the intersection of people and processes. Resistance is a natural part of any change – it can be expressed through individual leaders, through systems or among employees at large. When we lean into the resistance, and find the courage to engage it – that is where the true possibility for transformation lies. Running through all of these strategies is the underlying belief that we are all growing, changing human beings. When someone is resistant, it is easy to label them resulting in an adversarial relationship. Often as change agents, our instinct is to avoid the resistance by working around those people we perceive as most resistant.

It is much harder, but ultimately much more fruitful, to look for points of entry, to believe in the possibility of change and to take the risk of positively disrupting a leader’s assumptions and world view. Through the disruptive process, even the most seasoned leader can “re-emerge” with a passion and purpose for driving inclusion throughout the organization.

For more information on head and heart strategies, see visual below and chapter 4 in my book Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

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[1] John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen, The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, 1st ed. (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), 1.


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