The Truth about Diversity and Inclusion - So What Are Our Options for Action?

In this post, I share my perspectives about the value and potential for diversity and inclusion work, supplemented by current voices and events that inspire me. I have borrowed the title “The Truth about Diversity and Inclusion” from Joe Gerstandt’s fine essay, and added some thoughts about the meaning I am making of it and how that can inform next steps. This is an introduction to an Adaptive Action Lab coming up later this summer.

If you are part of today’s workforce, particularly if you work within an organization, you have probably attended at least one session on diversity and inclusion. One example of such took place on May 29th, 2018, with an unprecedentedly public approach. Starbucks held 8,000+ concurrent 4-hour diversity-and-inclusion-focused sessions across all of its US locations, involving 175,000 workers. This well-publicized large-scale approach certainly puts diversity and inclusion in the spotlight, and creates an opportunity to understand such efforts look like, and what is possible.

Often the topic of diversity and inclusion gets introduced to employees in a legal or compliance context. Training sessions are set up as a reactive and corrective response to quickly address what is perceived as a problem to be solved. That was the case with Starbucks when the nation-wide store closings were first announced. The urgency in this instance was to address what was widely seen as racial bias. The company offered their full guidebook online, which includes the promise of more to come:

Today focused on how we create belonging in our stores and learning about what gets in the way. Racial bias is one part of that story because it’s limited people for centuries and is the essential foundation for the work that comes next. Our conversation begins here, in the structures and systems that make up this country. We’ll continue exploring how those systems impact all of us personally and guide our interactions with each other.

In the coming weeks, months and years, we will address many other facets of what makes us truly human. This work will grow to reflect the realities of your abilities, ethnicities, gender identities and expressions, sexual identities, class, language, citizenship, political views and religious affiliations.

We begin in the United States, and we will continue to expand this conversation with our partners around the world.

The next time we gather it may look different.

And we will continue to go deeper.

We’re all in this together.

I recognize potential in this statement – a commitment to a long, deep, global engagement going well beyond merely meeting compliance standards. I see hopeful signs in their intentions. The statement displays:

  • An awareness of multiple patterns at play (“Racial bias is one part of the story…” “…we will address many other facets of what makes us truly human. This work will grow to reflect the realities of your abilities, ethnicities, gender identities and expressions, sexual identities, class, language, citizenship, political views and religious affiliations.”)
  • An awareness that it is necessary to play an infinite game in this important work, as there really are no short cuts to such complex issues.
  • An awareness of the need to adapt along the way, to incorporate new learning as it emerges from different contexts (“The next time we gather it may look different.”)
  • An understanding that they are at the beginning of a long extended effort across multiple scales (“We begin in the United States, and we will continue to expand this conversation with our partners around the world.”)

To get a broader look at the diversity and inclusion industry, I turn to Joe Gerstandt, one of my favorite voices in this space. In this short video he provides a succinct yet deep exploration of the US historical context, background, and nuance. This piece, full of clarity and insight, expands his intent in this field. I am drawn to this statement in particular:

If we had built a model of management and leadership rooted inextricably in the reality of human beings, there would be no need today for a body of work focused on diversity and inclusion because it would be fundamental. It would be foundational. It would be the starting point of everything involving human beings. It would be the default. We would have a way of leadership incapable of denying the centrality and universality of difference to the human experience.

I join Joe in dreaming of this world where we embrace, rather than deny “…the centrality and universality of difference to the human experience.” To deny difference is to fear difference. Such fear ignores the reality of the very nature of each of us as unique individuals. (Could racial bias be rooted in fear?) Joe continues:

Diversity runs deeply into and throughout the story of the human being on earth — in fact, it is the story.

There does not exist a single human interaction that does not contain difference. There is no communication, no learning, no change, no creation without difference. The human race does not exist without difference.

I would add: Difference is essential precisely because it generates tension, and tension is the catalyst for change in a system. With no difference, with no tension, there is no energy, no potential.

A system where differences are limited is a system without much potential. A system where differences are ignored or suppressed is a system that ignores or suppresses its potential.

We each uniquely bring our own differences into any interaction with others, even if we are not consciously doing so. Embracing the reality of those differences opens opportunities to create a wide range of meanings and a variety of options for action. This may introduce tensions such as uncertainty and lack of agreement – but those elements are essential to creating new ways of being. Certainty and agreement are sometimes useful, until they are not. Fearing the unknown and the emergent keeps us stuck in the past, unable to cope in the emerging present. Fearing difference is to severely limit what is possible in the future.

We are always in choice about how we react to and work with difference. The promise of diversity and inclusion is to find generative ways of being together with all our differences, to notice what differences are present, to bring in differences that are missing, all to create the best options going forward. Diversity and inclusion work promotes creativity, innovation, and better quality of life for all.

So what does this mean in our day-to-day reality? So what does this mean for the intractable issues of today?

For instance, I see a lot of pain in the present – in the world, this nation, in my state, in my communities. That is a reality I can see in the news on a daily basis. I see patterns of prejudice based on narrow perceptions. I see patterns of bigotry and obstinate intolerance related to ingrained attitudes dependent on separation by differences. These patterns come together to form larger patterns of racism and other types of oppression in action. Some of these patterns have deep roots in history, making them seem quite intractable. These patterns hold stories.

A series of quotes from Brené Brown shows there is an opening in an intractable pattern in the US:

When we deny our stories, they define us.

When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.




Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country, our history and the stories of pain will own us.




This is not bigger than us. This is us.

Yes, we need to own a million heartbreaking stories of discrimination and prejudice, and make millions of changes, and hold space for a million tough conversations. But, if each one of us owns one story and makes one change and has one honest conversation where we listen more than defend or offer false comfort – we can do this. There is a way to write a brave new ending to one of the most painful stories in our history. What remains to be seen is if we have the will and courage.

What will it take for us to own the stories, and create new patterns, new stories without fear driving separation?

I believe the field of Human Systems Dynamics offers needed hope and genuine action to explore how we see and understand our stories, our patterns, so that we may influence them for brave new possibilities. With a combination of realistic hope and wise action, we can enter that opening in the intractable, and change our stories, change our future. A few basic premises set the scene:

  • Difference is relational. Diversity does not exist in individuals; it exists between us…and it exists between all people.
  • In our interactions, our differences make us natural agents of change.
  • Patterns are stories we tell, stories we live in.
  • We each create and affect patterns just by being part of interactions together. These resulting patterns, in turn, affect us individually as well.
  • Our many differences introduce turbulence in our interactions and change in our systems.

By engaging intentionally with our own patterns, adaptive action and inquiry, we can learn to see, understand and influence our stories. As a result, we can better leverage difference to affect change in meaningful and intentional ways.

In the Starbucks statement, I observed examples indicating that they are well on their way to seeing their stories, and beginning to understand them, and my hope is that in their next steps, they find ways create new options in how they work together and with their customers that embrace diversity and create inclusion.

Art is another useful way to shine light on the potential of the work, such as this poem from Pádraig Ó Tuama, who has interests in storytelling, group work, theology and conflict. (link to the spoken version)

The Northern of Ireland

It is both a dignity and

a difficulty

to live between these


perceiving politics

in the syntax of

the state.

And at the end of the day,

the reality is

that whether we


or whether we stay

the same

these questions will


Who are we

to be

with one



How are we

to be

with one



What to do

with all those memories

of all of those funerals?


What about those present

whose past was blasted

far beyond their


I wake.

You wake.

She wakes.

He wakes.

They wake.

We Wake

and take

this troubled beauty forward.

How do we take our own “troubled beauty forward”? We can see this troubled beauty in our personal relationships, in teams, in organizations, in our countries. This is exactly what we plan to explore in an Adaptive Action Lab coming up later this summer. In this post I provided some background to the field of diversity and inclusion from a few perspectives, and thoughts on what Human Systems Dynamics can bring to creating new options. Jennifer Jones-Patulli and I will host this online Adaptive Action Lab to explore these possibilities and options more deeply in late August/early September. Click here for details.

The dialogue and exploration of what comes next will be much richer with your differences in the mix, so please be in touch if you would like to join us.

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