New School D&I

Why Passion and Caring Aren’t Enough to Drive Diversity Efforts

D&I requires a commitment to excellence the same as any other strategic priority, not just passion and caring.

A recent posting for a diversity-related job in a medium-sized organization included an all-too-common phrase in its description of the ideal candidate: “Must have a passion for diversity.”

Aside from “passion” and a few years of experience, the description said little else of substance about the ideal candidate’s qualifications. I could already tell the organization was off to a rocky start.

I can’t recall ever seeing a single job description in any industry for a finance director that included “passion” as one of its desired qualifications. The same goes for any other strategic leadership position, except for human resources, and that’s where the problem lies. In old school organizations, diversity and inclusion aren’t seen as strategic priorities like finance. In old school organizations, senior leadership doesn’t know their mission critical “why” for doing D&I, much less what meaningful goals to assign to that function.

Passion then becomes a substitute for clarity, competence, effectiveness and results. This leads to three problems.

  1. The D&I leader and D&I initiatives will struggle to be taken seriously and effect any meaningful change. How is “passion” to be measured, or translated into results that matter?
  2. Most of the people with “passion” for D&I are those most disadvantaged by its lack — women, people of color and LGBT people. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a member of a historically underrepresented group spearheading diversity efforts, the widespread nature of this practice reinforces the notion that D&I is only about, and for, members of those groups.
  3. Passion can get in the way, especially when it bumps up against the “caring imperative.” I recently had an online exchange with a person of color who took issue with one of my articles because they believed the article gave white people fewer reasons to care about people of color. But while caring is important to drive commitment (as with any strategic initiative), the goal of D&I is not greater caring, but more effective behaviors and more equitable systems and processes.

Caring is not required for a person to follow an equitable process or do more inclusive behaviors, especially once these become habit. Also, examples abound of people who care deeply but wreak havoc with their ineffective behaviors.

One of my favorite examples is a community leader in a city where I once lived who was deeply knowledgeable and passionate about diversity and equity, but managed to divide, undermine and alienate one community group after another with her lack of emotional intelligence and personal accountability. Organizations can likewise care about D&I, yet yield discriminatory or inferior results driven by inequitable systems and organizational biases, like in the oft-cited (and replicated) resume study. Intent does not equal impact.

Passion can also get in the way when it impedes one’s ability to look at “data” and make difficult, strategic decisions. I made this mistake myself as an internal D&I leader in a large organization. My passion and caring got in the way of taking seriously the fact that D&I in our organization was driven almost entirely by my energy and the personal capital of my high-ranking boss. We lacked meaningful commitment from key C-suite leaders, and this not only impeded our progress, but lead to clashes resulting in me leaving the organization.

This is not to say that passion and caring should be absent from D&I initiatives. In fact, all strategic leadership positions and initiatives should require both! But passion and caring alone aren’t enough, and certainly shouldn’t substitute for: (1) a mission-critical business case for D&I that is driven by senior leadership; (2) measurable, meaningful goals; (3) a trusted D&I leader with robust expertise and a track record of results; and (4) accountability.

The science is clear: diversity plus inclusiveness is an excellence multiplier. Therefore, D&I requires a commitment to excellence the same as any other strategic priority. Passion and caring aren’t enough on their own.

Susana Rinderle is president of Susana Rinderle Consulting and a trainer, coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.