The Garden of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” 

Our established practice has been to tout the benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion without truly discussing the work that is necessary to reap that harvest.  Diversity, equity and inclusion drives good outcomes however we cannot randomly throw difference into a culture and expect that we will reap greater innovation, decreased costs, improved service and better quality.  We have to cultivate our culture in order for a garden of diversity, equity and inclusion to flourish.

Why is cultivating such an important factor in gardening?  How and when should we cultivate? Cultivating is an archaic gardening principal and, like many things that are longstanding, is fairly simple. The practice of cultivating the soil basically serves two purposes: removing weeds from the garden and loosening the soil to optimize the retention and penetration of air, water, and nutrients. Cultivating breaks up the crusty soil of indifference, exclusion and injustice that naturally rests under the surface in all of us. If we don’t actively work on a creating culture of diversity, equity and inclusion we won’t have access to nutrients necessary for inclusivity to survive. 

If you think of culture as a garden.  There are three main components necessary to reap the benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion.

First, Tilling the Soil

The purpose of tilling is to mix organic matter into your soil, help control weeds and break up hardened soil, or loosen up a small area for planting.  A farmer or gardener does not till or break up the soil very deep.  In fact, with regard to depth, less is better.  When introducing diversity of any kind to an environment, think of the newness as embarking upon new soil.  If you are going to plant in an area that has not be cultivated before, the ground must be tilled.  There are some situations when diversity is welcomed and celebrated.  There are other instances in which the environment is not quite ready.  Therefore, in this instance, it is a requirement of the diverse person to adjust his or her style in order to be seen and heard. 

Soil tillers are the pioneers. Although it is hard work and often unfair, sometimes pioneers assimilate in order to be a catalyst for advancement. They actively adjust to make space and room to cultivate the new, different, and better. Cultivating the soil is backbreaking work that a small number of people have the tolerance to embark upon.  However, it makes it easier for newly germinated seeds to sprout through the surface of the soil.  Similarly, breaking up the existing culture allows different employees to blossom in the future.  Consider what would happen if the soil hasn’t been tilled and a person of difference jumped in with weed killer at this point in the process.

Long-term damage would be inevitable. 

The weed killer has a specific purpose – killing vegetation – in doing so at the tilling phase weed killers run the risk of creating an environment where nothing can grow.  Soil tillers are important.  They prep the climate for diverse perspectives to thrive later. 

Second, Planting Seeds

Seeds, like people, naturally grow and thrive in fertile environments.  Fertile environments have  three characteristics.

  • The correct temperature – What is the external climate like?  Is the temperature good for seed planting?  Seeds tend to stay dormant until the temperature is right.  Consequently, we have to focus on our culture and identify what needs to be done in order to create the climate for diversity, equity and inclusion to thrive.
  • Good location – Every organization, small or large, is not necessarily the place for every type of diversity to thrive.  Deciding to plant seeds must be balanced with where to plants seeds.  Planting seeds in the wrong location hinders long term harvesting efforts.
  • Water – There is a thirst to grow and germinate for all “seeds” or people and there must be a social desire to quench that thirst.

According to Gallup, leaders are responsible for up to 70% of the climate of engagement.  In other words, leaders in organizations are the ones who help to create situations in which all three conditions are met and seeds can flourish.  Most leaders are planters. They want to create a great culture however often regularly hope and wish that a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion will merely happen without their tireless effort.  A workplace culture of diversity, equity and inclusion must be intentional. Intentionality plants seeds in fertile soil and encourages others to share their perspectives, fosters ambitious ideas, and encourages creativity.

Finally, Weeding

First, we have to understand that weeds exist.  Inclusion does not mean that all voices are heard and that all perspectives are honored.  Inclusion means that all perspectives that are driven by bringing everyone along are heard.  By default, that means that hateful language, and more importantly discriminatory policy and practices, must be weeded out of an organization. 

What is the purpose of weeding?  Weeds are unwanted because they are unsightly or crowd out the light from the attitudes, behaviors and mindsets we want our associates to experience. It is important to rid our cultures of weeds because they also rob nutrients from the seeds that are planted.  In other words, if the weeds of hate are allowed to flourish, we signal to the culture that we do not take serious our roles as cultivators of culture. 

Weeds always inhibit growth within the garden. Accordingly, we need weed pullers and we need those weed pullers to go deep because hate, unconscious bias and discriminatory practices are not usually hanging around on the surface of our organization.  It is usually hidden deep in beneath the soil.  Weed killers are the ones who pluck hate and ‘isms’ and ‘ogynies’ out of our culture from its’ roots recognizing that doing otherwise (or nothing) could allow it take over. It is important that we exercise the courage needed to address these ills before they destroy the goodness that is inherent in most people. It would be inappropriate to use tilling strategies when the weeds of hate are present.  Consequently, we have to dig deep and confront problems, remove distractions, and resolve any conflicts to bring people together against weed-like ideologies and practices. 

Therefore, just as a garden must be cultivated in order to survive, we must be purposeful about cultivating culture within our workplaces in order for us to reap the benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.  Farming has never been a spectator sport.  It takes work from all of us who have a desire to bring the best of our employees to bear every single day.