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Diversity Fatigue: Igniting Multiple Flames

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
October 31, 2022

We often hear calls for increased diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the public sector, but less heard is any discussion of “diversity fatigue.” The term embraces the feelings of frustration and exhaustion associated with failing to meet DE&I goals. These goals are complex and usually influenced greatly by external influences beyond our control. Diversity fatigue also encompasses the adaptive challenges of dealing with those whose personal values question the need for such efforts. Progress will be incremental and halting, and public sector leaders must develop a long-term plan to maintain DE&I as an organizational goal.

Messaging

Too often, we see DE&I efforts approached through narrow, formal messaging. These messages are often restricted to social justice concerns and legal liabilities; these messages fail to reach everyone. If we are trying to influence values, attitudes and behaviors, we must find messages triggering differing “buttons” in each person, finding a means to ignite their interests. If general messaging fails repeatedly to generate the outcomes desired, it is time to consider another approach.

There are four broad approaches to DE&I efforts: Social Justice; Legal Liability; Multiple Perspectives; and Responsive Services. Most human resource management efforts focus on the first two: Social Justice and Legal Liability. If DE&I efforts are not achieving success, it might be time to consider using the Multiple Perspectives and Responsive Services approaches. These might seem more prosaic, shifting the focus from social equity. However, no approach should be discarded if it helps to light the way towards success.

The Social Justice Approach: This traditional approach recognizes past societal injustices, seeking means to redress them by more active approaches towards DE&I. Commonly used messaging includes trainings, posters and informational literature disseminated through various means. This messaging may be powerful to those who already embrace DE&I, but less so in changing attitudes in those who reject the value or the need for DE&I efforts within the agency. They may read or view the materials, but not put them into action.

The Legal Liability Approach: Often the major focus of formal agency policies, this approach identifies the potential personal and organizational legal liabilities if there are no formal efforts to increase DE&I, or if the efforts are pro forma with little impact. The language often reflects the terms and concepts associated with the specific legal responsibilities of employers contained in the Equal Employment Opportunity Act or in Affirmative Action. They may spark a change in behavior to avoid any legal liabilities, but these efforts will often be aimed at meeting only the minimum standards of formal behavior. They are unlikely to change hearts and minds.

The Multiple Perspectives Approach: This approach focuses on the practical aspects of decision-making. Organizations which embrace some form of collaborative or shared decision-making already embrace this concept. The core of this philosophy is that if we analyze issues from differing perspectives —perspectives framed on gender, sexual orientation, race, culture, experience, age, religion or other factors, we will more likely have a fuller understanding of the challenge and garner greater insight into how to tailor responses which are both effective and efficient. It has the potential benefit of tapping into the professional pride of the workforce, providing employees a simple, practical means to improve the quality of their work by increasing DE&I.

The Responsive Services Approach: The Responsive Services argument may be likened to the Six Sigma concepts of “pulling” (letting the customer pull from us the services they wish in terms of quality and quantity) instead of “pushing” (providing the services agency leadership believes are appropriate). While the Multiple Perspectives Approach focuses on efficacy and efficiency, the Responsive Services Approach is tied to perceptions of service quality, based upon the expectations of the communities we serve. Everyone in public service should be seeking to provide a higher quality of life for everyone in the community, even if they frequently do so through the narrow delivery of services within their own professional realm. This approach taps in again to professional pride, but focuses on outcomes—the achievement of the agency mission, more so than on traditional measures of effectiveness and efficiency.

Leadership

Each of these messaging approaches has both value and shortcomings. The intent of this article is not to move away from any message, but to use multiple forms of messaging to ignite the interests of differing people, recognizing that as individuals their interests might be piqued differently. Regardless of the messaging forms, DE&I shall fail if leadership is not actively, visibly, continually acting with integrity. If they do not “walk the talk,” even if unintentionally, no amount of messaging might overcome this—their actions will speak louder than their words. DE&I might become formally valued, but informally marginalized, if not diminished. Instead of lighting a flame to light our way to DE&I for our agencies, we will let the fires grow cold. If we do this, we fail in our duty to our employees and our communities. If the fires burn out, we must continue to relight them.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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