Adobe Stock ~ TanyaJoy

How to Live Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

From Espoused Values to Embodied Culture

When you’re operating inside of a competitive worldview and you create strategic initiatives to elevate the historically marginalized and eradicate inequality, you can expect backlash from those who have the most to gain by maintaining power over others. It’s an inevitable part of game theory. “Predators” don’t like to lose and don’t play fair.

So I’m shocked but not surprised by Trump’s latest executive order putting the kibosh on diversity training in the US. There are always going to be people who deny the imbalances of power so that they can continue to profit from them.

But Trump’s executive order aside, when I hear that some companies have been working on DEI initiatives for over 30 years and then I see stats like those found in this 2019 McKinsey & Company survey, it makes me wonder where the disconnect is.

It bears note that I am not a DEI expert. There are plenty of great people out there doing incredible work in this space. What I’m focused on is what it takes to create leadership and organizational systems that truly enable people of all genders, ethnicities, orientations and abilities to adapt and thrive at work.

When we look to other complex adaptive systems as models, we see that:

  • Healthy organisms can and do operate sustainably within their ecosystems.
  • Ecosystems adapt and thrive through biodiversity, and
  • Monocultures breed degradation and entropy.

As with other complex adaptive systems, the individual actors, environment and the organization all play a role in our collective outcomes. Let’s look at the influences of each on our current state of affairs.

As individual actors,

  • Women still play a majority role in caring for the kids, the household and in some cases our aging parents. The gender imbalance in our households has been made increasingly clear through the pandemic.
  • Unlike our male counter-parts, women often let self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy take us out before even entering the room or attempting to sit at the table. And even when we’ve earned our seat, we frequently let our inner critic and fear diminish our contributions.
  • People who are under-represented in a culture often find it more challenging to experience belonging and success or show up authentically for fear of being singled out, rejected, ostracized or too visible.

I think it’s critically important to work with women and people of colour (and I do) to validate these personal experiences and provide coaching, community, sponsorship and one-on-one support to elevate them and their leadership.

On the other hand, our environments play a role as well.

  • The rules of engagement for the systems we work in have mostly been designed by and for the preferences and aptitudes of cisgender white males.
  • Women and people of colour have historically had fewer opportunities and less financial access to higher education. And in many cases that education has been incongruent with our history, our worldview and/or the future we want to create.
  • And even when the under-represented step into leadership roles, we’ve been culturally conditioned to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the systems that favor the preferences, aptitudes and abilities of the prevailing power brokers.

So here’s where we get to the deep tissue work in our organizations. Whatever the current state of diversity in your ecosystem it represents an alignment or misalignment between the hand, head, heart and soul of your organization.

  • Where hand represents your tactical efforts and actions
  • Head represents your assumptions, policies, plans and perspectives
  • Heart is your motivations and values and how that shows up in your ability to sense, empathize with and respond to the needs of your stakeholders, and
  • Soul is your culture and mindset as represented by the lived vision and values of your leaders and employees in action.

If you’re putting in a lot of effort and resources into your DEI strategy and not getting the results you expect, it’s usually because of some incongruence between your collective mindset, motivations and actions. These show up as competing and often unconscious commitments that have not been adequately expressed or addressed.

So how do you address the inequality and imbalances in your organization without creating new imbalances and maladaptive symptoms going forward?

Here are some questions you can use to go beyond strategy to creating coherent conditions and diverse environments where anyone can adapt and thrive


Do our plans adequately represent and address the perspectives and values of stakeholders across the ecosystem?

  • The ones we serve
  • The ones we source from, and
  • The ones we impact

Which stakeholders and/or stakeholder perspectives have we included in our planning, and which have we ignored or excluded?

If we have not included diverse stakeholders and perspectives, what assumptions, concerns or fears do we have about including them?

Despite our best intentions, what assumptions, concerns or fears do we have about following through on these initiatives?


What are our motivations?

  • appearing to do good?
  • being seen as a thought leader in our space?
  • maintaining access to a certain demographic in our workforce?
  • protecting profits and investments from consumer backlash?
  • outshining our competitors in the talent game?
  • developing adaptive leaders, culture and organization?

For many leaders and organizations, it’s some combination of these and other unspoken motivations. As Daniel Schmachtenberger reminds us we often have at least a dozen motivations, only half of which we’re aware of and only one or two that are expressly stated.

  • What are people experiencing at work? How are they interpreting their experiences?
  • Are people adapting and thriving under our leadership, or are they just surviving?
  • What efforts have we made to fully understand how our current culture impacts our people?
  • What is being said when leadership is not in the room? And what are the barriers to people speaking honestly and openly when leaders are in the room?
  • Where is our culture holding us back, or incongruent with our stated vision, values and strategy?


  • What are the quality of conversations happening in the organization?
  • Who is invited into these conversations?
  • Where and when are these conversations happening? Have we intentionally created accessible space to cultivate healthy conversations?
  • How are we as leaders showing up in the organization and in the marketplace?
  • Who are we being in times of challenge and increasing complexity?
  • Who will we need to become as leaders in order to effectively live our values?
  • What are the values that drive the organization as experienced by our employees, customers , vendors and silent stakeholders?
  • How does our organization show up in the marketplace?
  • What impact are our actions and inactions having on people, communities and the planet?

Perhaps it’s time to go beyond diversity, equity and inclusion as a strategy and explore what new levels of synergy, emergence and advantage become available to us when we embody cultures where people of any race, gender, ability, and orientation can and do adapt and thrive.

Founder of UpLevel Leadership Academy helping individuals and organizations develop the competency, capacity and community to adapt, grow and thrive.

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