Thought Leadership

Addressing the Elephant In The Room – DEI

Written by Contributing Writers: Chris Altizer and Gloria Johnson-Cusack 


Talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace seems to have gotten more instead of less difficult. Somehow, programs designed to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion are perceived, in increasingly large quarters, to promote division, inequity, and exclusion.

How did we get here?

By most measures, decades of DEI programs have failed to move any meaningful needles. In fact, the last few years have seen backlashes and even legislation to govern workplace training. Leaders at all levels – and not just in the United States – are struggling with how to engage in productive discussions of differences. Whether differences in gender, color, social class, economic class, ethnic background, or any other differences, many try to ‘treat everyone the same’ or ‘not see color’ – which simply doesn’t work.

One particularly hot DEI spot that smolders or bursts into flames is the concept of ‘privilege.’ “Don’t tell ME I haven’t earned what I have!” plays against ‘If I must explain ONE MORE TIME what it’s like to be me, I’ll explode!’ plays in others. Those with privilege don’t recognize or work with it, while those without it are incensed or exhausted by it. Unfortunately, typical DEI programs fail to give participants tools to deal with either inevitable reaction. Whether you’re a leader or a trainer, you’ve seen (or had) this experience. 

A different approach is to reframe the discussion into something more manageable and potentially productive for everyone. Here’s how co-author Gloria Johnson-Cusack and I think of it.

Not Privilege – Earned and Unearned Advantages

The problems with privilege include its unconscious (to those with it) nature and the interpretation that those with it are successful only because of it and that those without it can’t be successful without intervention. Earned and unearned advantage, however, allows people to accept the idea that some success is from talent or hard work (earned) and that opportunities are influenced by who you are and where you’re from (unearned).

Who you are and where you’re from matters. Skin color, gender, ability, sexual identity, national origin, personality, body type, religion, as well as national origin, socio-economics, and even access to clean water all influence opportunities for earned advantage. Most DEI programs increase awareness of diversity but fail to meet people where they are in understanding inclusion or equity. Whatever your job is, our advice is not to approach the elephant of advantage like the parable of the blind wise men of India, each declaring the elephant part he touches to be the whole elephant but to recognize and work with unearned advantage to grow opportunities for earned advantage for everyone – equally.


1. Recognize Unearned Advantage – Mindfully

Whether you have few or many unearned advantages, increasing awareness and the ability to remain with the uncomfortable are keys to reducing the emotional charge of recognizing them. While workplace mindfulness has become both a panacea and a punching bag (similar to DEI), the practices can help people accept what’s real rather than deny it, and it provides the basis for intentional action to change what needs changing. When it comes to recognizing perceptions of self and others, people are their own best teachers. You can’t meditate your way to growing earned advantage, but with reflection, you can become more aware of your potential to improve it. Effectively incorporating workplace mindfulness can help. DEI experiences that meet people where they are in their own lived experiences, in the present moment, with less judgment – and incorporate skill-building to do so – are key.


2. Work with Unearned Advantage – Growth Mindset

Like any elephant in the room, once you see unearned advantages, you must deal with them (or bail). You can apply a variation of Carol Dweck’s work of growth mindset to work with them. You could say that’s the way it is, there’s nothing you can do about it, and talking about it just makes it worse – a fixed advantage mindset. Or you can explore beyond the elephant you know and risk seeing it from another perspective – a growth advantage mindset (GAM). The GAM realizes that innovation and collaboration require seeing both what’s in common and what’s different and that opportunities increase with intentional effort. It knows the research that well-managed diverse teams outperform homogenous teams. BTW: GAM is agnostic of politics or attitude, and it’s not about being agreeable or ‘correct.’ Anyone can grow their advantage mindset with awareness and intentional practice. DEI experiences that intentionally help participants grow their mindset will help.


 3. Grow Opportunities for Earned Advantage – for all

When you reduce the share taken by unearned advantage, you’ve already increased earned advantage opportunities. Beyond that, leaders can grow earned advantage in other ways, including checking themselves when they give ‘the benefit of the doubt’ and how and to whom they delegate power and authority. All of us, regardless of role, can grow earned advantage in other ways, including recognizing every human has biases, and we can act above them. Each of us can, with practice, increase our awareness of ourselves, of others, and of our impact on others.


While too many people in the world intentionally create divisions based on differences, most difference-based workplace disconnects and offenses are unintentional. That said, unintentional or not, micro or macro, they take a significant toll. You can think of reducing the impact of unearned advantage as fair and right – and you’d be right. But that’s not enough.

Every employee, whoever they are and wherever they’re from, can uniquely and together contribute to innovation, collaboration, and productivity in the workplace. Enabling opportunities for earned advantage for all is the role of HR and DEI professionals, but the approaches to workplace DEI programs of the last three decades must be reset. In some places, the law requires it. Programs that meet people where they are, build the capacity to deal with what’s difficult, and focus on the opportunities found in daily life may be the path.  



About the Authors

A servant leader and changemaker, Gloria Johnson-Cusack, MPA, provides consulting services to leadership teams and boards of public and private foundations committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, financial security, and health. She lectures at the graduate School of Professional Studies, Columbia University in New York, and serves as Board Chair of the Firelight Foundation, supporting communities in Africa. Chris Altizer, MBA, MA, is a retired and recovering HR executive now teaching HR and Inclusion at Florida International University, as well as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. His work has been covered in Forbes and appeared in Consulting Psychology Journal and Strategic HR Review, and he’s co-authored three books, Mindfully Mobile, Way of the Road Warrior, and Growing the Elephant – increasing earned advantage for all.