Creating a culture that fosters DEI

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Given the recent events in the U.S., diversity, equity and inclusion has become an urgent and in-demand emphasis at many institutions. It seems as though most organizations have taken a short-term approach (putting out fires) rather than a long-term approach to truly embrace and sustain diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI, for short).  

I believe what’s needed is a long-term model—one containing five different elements—that creates a culture that fosters DEI in organizations. 

Kenneth Rhee

Psychological safety

One of the key concepts in DEI should be psychological safety. People in organizations need to feel safe to voice their ideas and opinions without feeling pressured or constrained. Often, good intentions of political correctness might produce the opposite effect of stifling people’s voices and ideas. 

In order for people to feel safe, there should be no concern for retaliation or backlash due to their opinions or unpopular positions. Psychological safety will allow for healthy debates, and the engagement will be cordial or respectful. I will talk more about the importance of another factor, respect, later. 

In addition, it would be fine for people to make mistakes and learn from them so that they can continue to improve or achieve different outcomes in the future. Without psychological safety, people will either voluntarily suppress or hide their mistakes for fear of being crucified or blamed.   Such actions will truly prevent any organization from achieving genuine diversity.

For certain people, diversity means racial diversity, and some might wonder how psychological safety impacts that. I would posit that it would not be possible to engage in any meaningful conversation about race without having psychological safety. In my own experience, I have seen more racial diversity in places or organizations where people felt safe rather than not safe. 

Teamwork and collaboration

Contrary to the popular myth, great teamwork does not mean that you conform to everything that is the team. In fact, such behaviors often lead to what we call “group think” that might stifle novel ideas or produce bad decision-making. In contrast, a highly effective team is one that respects and values each member’s individuality while working together to pursue a common goal. The positive benefits of teamwork and collaboration are numerous, including the creation of a team spirit as well as a sense of belonging.  

Additionally, for many teams, each team member has his own responsibility or work that needs to be executed.  If we look at a football team (I mean American football since in the rest of the world ‘football’ refers to a different game—soccer), each player has a specialized task that must be performed, and that task might not be the same.  Even though each player has a different role or task to perform, in order for a team to be effective, each player must do their job effectively so the team can excel. So, equity in teamwork also refers to equal responsibility and accountability within the team.  

Invitational relationships

Building close and meaningful relationships is another key factor in fostering DEI. Often, as is the case with any relationship, it works best when the act of engagement is voluntary, not forced or coerced. I learned a valuable lesson in the first year of my doctoral program. I was a member of a cohort, and we were trying to be inclusive and create a cohesive team. As such, we tried to make sure everyone participated in any activity we were planning to do as a cohort. Unfortunately, it was a logistical nightmare; whenever we tried to do something, someone either could not make it or did not want to participate. As a result, we were often paralyzed, and in the end, we often did not get together as a group. Instead, we spent too much time complaining about certain people in the group or spent our time analyzing the defective nature of our group.

From this experience, I learned that what I call an “invitational approach” works better when it comes to being inclusive. We should simply have started with the invitations to all and let those who wanted to come to do so. I have tried this approach in many settings since then, including formal graduate programs and business schools, and what I have discovered is that initially, some folks would not come, but as we gained momentum (and others saw how much fun we were having at those events), slowly others would join us, and eventually, we would have near-full participation. The lesson learned is that when people do not feel coerced or pressured to participate but instead feel invited to participate, it’s more likely they will have a better time, and when others see that, more people are likely to join in the future. 

One caveat here is that this is not the same as the selective invitation. In other words, one does not exclude certain people because you think they would not participate or enjoy the event. The invitation needs to be universal and as inclusive as possible. 


Equity does not mean equality across all dimensions. If a person gets an apple, that does not mean everyone else gets an apple. Perhaps someone wants a pear instead of an apple. However, it would be unfair if someone gets one apple, and somebody else gets two pears. People fulfill different roles and perform different tasks, and that means people might be compensated differently or receive different benefits. However, it would not be fair for two people doing the same job to receive different compensation or be treated differently. 

So, the question we should be asking is, “Is it fair?” rather than “Is this equal?” Someone might argue, who decides what is fair and what is standard? I am not so concerned with such criticism since it is much more difficult to assess equality than fairness. We seem to have an internal gauge that responds to the question of fairness much more accurately. When you ask students whether their professors were fair in their grading, I often find that they have a pretty good gauge in assessing fairness. It is not a question of whether everyone got an equal score, but did the professor apply the same criteria and judgment in grading their assignments. 

Some people might suggest that all we need to create equity is blind and equal opportunities for everyone. However, blind and equal opportunities might not be sufficient to achieve fairness. If people are not currently on the same playing field, then simply opening up the playing field is not sufficient. For example, if we only let taller people into the theater in the past and decide to open it up the theater to everyone, including shorter people, is it not more equitable? However, if we place all shorter people at the back of the theater and all taller people at the front into a flat theater arena and claim that everyone is playing on the same field, shorter people might not have a great view of the stage as a result of how we seated them and how the theater floor plan is designed. So, simply claiming that we gave everyone an equal opportunity for them to see the show does not make the situation fair. 


Finally, one concept that ties everything together is respect. Without respect, it would be difficult to interact with people with different opinions or perspectives. It would be hard to establish psychological safety if parties involved in the dispute do not show any sign of respect. The current polarization and gulf between different groups of people in the U.S. is a direct result of the lack of respect shown by different groups. 

Without respect, it would be hard to build any form of relationship with each other. If no relationship can be established, it would be practically impossible to build teamwork and collaboration. If people do not respect differences, it would be impossible to establish diversity and inclusion. 

I learned a valuable lesson when I was fresh out of graduate school and started working as a scientist/engineer for a company. As research and development engineers, we often interacted with folks in the manufacturing plant. My engineering colleagues would often complain to me about “bad attitudes” or lack of courtesy shown by the folks in the plant. This was puzzling since that was not my experience. One day I asked a few of the employees in the manufacturing plant about what I was observing, and what they revealed to me was earth-shattering. 

One of the employees said, “The reason your experience is different from others is that you treat us differently than your colleagues. You are very polite to us when you ask us to do something, and you respect us.”

I was taken aback when I heard this. I have always practiced this with anyone, so I was not conscious that my behavior would have such a profound impact. This was a lesson I took away and continue to practice to this day. I have since observed mutual respect goes a long way in obliterating social status, racial or global differences. 

All five concepts explored here would require certain leadership values and behaviors (see my earlier article in the Rochester Beacon about leading by example), and those values and behaviors need to be duplicated throughout the organization.  

Some of you might now be asking how the creation of such culture can ensure we will have diversity in our midst. Believe it or not, my experience has been if an organization develops this type of culture, it becomes a natural attractor for people of diverse backgrounds. It attracts diversity. Why would people with different backgrounds not gravitate toward the place where they can feel safe, belonging, valued, and respected? In short, everyone is playing on the even playing field.  

As stated earlier, many organizations seem to be focusing more on short-term solutions like offering workshops or trainings on DEI these days, but let us hope that those organizations will also undertake the long-term missing component of creating a culture that fosters diversity, equity, and inclusion. Establishing such a culture is not be an easy task. For instance, during times of uncertainty or polarization, people naturally gravitate toward what is comfortable and ensconce with others who share the same or similar ideas, opinions and values, excluding others who do not. However, if that happens, what happens to our ideal for diversity and inclusion? 

Despite the difficult work involved in establishing the culture that fosters DEI, leaders need to embrace it genuinely. The impact such culture can create on people and organizations is so paramount that all efforts will be worthwhile. 

Kenneth Rhee is the dean of the School of Business and Leadership at Nazareth College.

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