In recent years, leaders expanded their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) programs in response to the overwhelming public support for social justice causes like #MeToo, #BLM and #StopAAPIHate. Corporations made commitments — through words, actions and resources — to recruit, retain and foster cultures in which racial and gender minorities could thrive.

Now, newly empowered chief diversity officers are forced to defend themselves amid political currents that have turned against them. Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard (2023), which ruled that race could not be used as a factor in university admissions, amplified the voices of critics decrying corporate DEIB efforts as ineffective, unfair or even illegal. Thirteen attorneys general issued a statement opposing corporate DEIB plans and warned corporate leaders to re-examine practices and eliminate quotas. Opposition to affirmative action and diversity goals is not new, but with an upcoming presidential election, politicians are positioning themselves as either for or against DEIB.

In the aftermath of SFFA, how should corporate leaders respond to the polarization surrounding DEIB? How can those seeking to create diverse, equitable and inclusive workspaces bring opposing sides into alignment?

Experience has taught us, as educators and DEIB professionals, that the answer lies in using a negotiation mindset. We challenge you to consider the various stakeholders in an organization as taking part in a multiparty, multi-issue negotiation regarding the meaning, direction and implementation of DEIB efforts. 

Integrative Tactic 1: Be Mindful of Fixed-Pie Mindset

DEIB efforts inherently propose new ways of approaching situations that threaten those who have historically fared well in organizational life. Some majority group members see DEIB initiatives as taking something away from them or those like them. In negotiation terms, this is a “zero sum” or “fixed pie” framing. This view can engender resistance and friction.

Leverage Cognitive Framing

When communicating priorities with stakeholders, leaders should focus on what is to be gained, not lost, to facilitate agreement.

Imagine a sponsorship program designed to increase numbers of women and minorities in leadership. It should be communicated that the organization grows stronger, more profitable and more competitive with the development of more employees.

Build Relationships Before the Ask

Those who succeed quickly in new roles — DEIB or otherwise — build broad networks across business functions. This process of information gathering, understanding others’ interests, and offering help establishes trust. Of course, the DEIB team must stay focused on moving the needle and delivering outcomes quickly, but one must remember that relationships help deliver outcomes; they are not oppositional.

Relational capital has economic value for negotiators, and positive feelings following one negotiation can objectively influence subsequent negotiations.

Integrative Tactic 2: Know When to Pivot

Getting all stakeholders aligned to support DEIB is difficult. In this process, DEIB professionals will face moments of defeat and uncertainty. As such, a longer time horizon and a shift to different priorities can help regain leverage and preserve relationships. Given that mandates and priorities can change rapidly, DEIB practitioners must remain agile and be ready to table one issue and advance another. Momentum can also be built with small wins that demystify the work and convince naysayers that DEIB efforts have a broader positive impact.

Align Stakeholders

Integrative negotiations always feature more than one issue. In fact, more issues in a negotiation lead to a greater chance of creating value for and aligning all stakeholders. DEIB practitioners must advance multiple issues simultaneously, then be prepared to revise their rank order of priorities amid a dynamic and sometimes volatile environment.

External Influence

Social proof, a powerful element of influence, could also engender support for employee resource group (ERG) initiatives. As organizations tend to copy one another, drawing upon industry leaders could help to further advance DEIB agendas. So, although your COO/CFO may not be ready to compensate ERG leaders, you may learn that a competitor is considering the practice. Will they consider ERG leader compensation if evidence of burnout or turnover continues into the next quarter?

Expand the Pie
Read the full article as it first appeared in People + Strategy, The Professional Journal of the SHRM Executive Network

Integrative Tactic 3: Sequencing to Build Coalitional Support

Sequencing to Build Support: Issues

A primary job of DEIB professionals is to assess which organizational processes need to be created, eliminated or altered to reach desired DEIB goals. Should you first address the processes that seem easy to alter, building momentum with small but visible “wins”? Or should you make efforts to change entrenched routines that could take longer and spark pushback?

Use knowledge of others’ interests to start with an easy win, which then may lead to greater support for a more challenging issue. Say there is alignment on the executive team that the company should signal its commitment to DEIB through internal and external communication channels, and the executive team’s voices need to be part of the communications.

Maybe go ahead and advance the executive team’s interests. Start small, even if just to signal organizational commitment. This visibility may then build accountability among leaders to have results that bolster their stated commitment. It may also create urgency for more substantive changes, such as alterations to recruitment processes. Stakeholders may warm up to the idea of something bigger if they see more communication about DEIB in their weekly newsletters or hear more about DEIB programming.

Sequencing to Build Support: Stakeholders

A second aspect of sequencing involves deciding whom to approach first when advocating for change. Gaining the support of the most powerful players is crucial, as communication channels and resources are needed from those leaders to set expectations and the pace for the work. Yet cultivating the “doers on the ground” is necessary too. Managers can help employees feel safe enough to contribute their knowledge and perspectives.

Fixed-pie bias is stronger in dyadic rather than multiparty negotiations, in part because having multiple players increases the likelihood of divergence in what the various parties value and where they are willing to make concessions that yield alignment. 

These are challenging times for leaders who want to advance DEIB practices and goals. An integrative negotiation framework can provide leaders with a guide for how to get DEIB work done amid the changing political winds.

This article excerpts “Expanding the Pie: How to Drive Alignment on Inclusion,” which first appeared in People + Strategy, The Professional Journal of the SHRM Executive Network, and can be read in full here.