If you think infusing and supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within organizations is a matter of flipping a leadership attitude switch and handing down marching orders, Stephanie Creary, PhD, has some news for you. Creary, a sought-after expert in helping organizations think differently about how they approach DEI, offers this reality check:
"DEI leadership is hard."
But it's not impossible, Creary's quick to add, and finding those possibilities takes a quality she describes as "resilient HOPE." Creary, a former speech-language pathologist-turned-business professor, explored the dynamics of that concept during her keynote address to APTA's first-ever leadership congress, held Aug. 12-16 in Washington, D.C. and at APTA headquarters. A recording of the address is available.
The all-caps "HOPE" is purposeful, Creary explained. She uses the word as an acronym for (1) holding yourself accountable, (2) organizational commitment to learning opportunities, (3) promotion of DEI activities, and (4) energizing and elevating DEI work.
Creary told the audience that the concept of resilience is equally important. Whereas hope connotates a kind of unbridled optimism, she said, resilience is characterized by the acknowledgement of skepticism, the desire to advance in the presence of obstacles, and persistence despite setbacks. Making hope resilient is the way leaders can take on the hard work of steering toward increased DEI.
Part of what makes the work so hard, Creary said, is that there are diverse attitudes about DEI, sometimes even within an organization's leadership circles, which require different approaches to engagement.
Creary offered a way of thinking about differing DEI attitudes based on the green-yellow-red divisions of a traffic light. The green group includes "experienced champions and engaged newcomers," both of whom not only wholly embrace DEI concepts but are energetic about working for change. The yellow group tends to be composed of "curious-yet-concerned newcomers and burned-out champions" who may support change but have reservations. Creary described the red group as beginners who are either "reluctant" or "resistant" — for Creary, two different concepts that require separate strategies.
The key to moving the needle on DEI, Creary said, is in recognizing these differences in attitudes and tailoring leadership appropriately. "You can't just design for the greens. You can't just design for the yellows. You can't just design for the reds," she said. "You have to design for each of these groups."
Individuals in the red group — particularly those who are resistant — need to be recognized for their willingness to show up for the DEI conversation, Creary explained, but leaders also need to encourage them to imagine what it would look like if they let go of their resistance. On the other hand, Creary believes those who are reluctant often simply don’t know how to contribute. “Maybe if we teach them they would move out of this group,” she offered. Leaders also need to discuss a common concern among the resistant and reluctant — the idea that addressing DEI takes resources and focus away from other organizational priorities, described as a "zero-sum mindset" by Creary.
The key to working with yellow group individuals is to "start small," Creary said, and "think less about risks and more about opportunities." Leaders should consider investing “less time in trying to convince the reds … and invest more time in the yellows, people who might be feeling as you feel that there is some good that might be achieved here."
"It’s fun around greens," Creary said, but leaders need to challenge this group as well, particularly around encouraging them to "begin to understand a perspective that is not your own more intently."
The bottom line, Creary told the audience, is that leaders should brace themselves for hard work and difficult conversations but know that the rewards will be worth the effort. The words of Frederick Douglas ring just as true today as ever, she said: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."
In a Q&A session that followed the address, Creary spoke at greater length about resistance based on a concern that emphasizing DEI pulls organizations away from other priorities.
Creary said that in her work as a consultant, it's not uncommon for some leaders to voice that concern. Her response is to help leaders understand that DEI activities aren't separate from other priorities but included within them — what she calls an effort to "DEI-ify all those duties."
"That requires people sitting down and seeing that it's not an add-on, but an infusion," Creary said.