Built In recently held a panel discussion about the state of DEI in tech — on the heels of publishing our report of the same name — featuring three panelists, including Christy Pruitt-Haynes, global head of talent & performance at the NeuroLeadership Institute. In this edited excerpt from the conversation, Pruitt-Haynes shares advice for leaders seeking to realize lasting change. Her concept of ‘‘The Parade Effect” sheds light on why leaders have blind spots when confronted with employees’ experiences. You’ll never watch a parade in the same way. You’ll probably never lead in the same way either.
Download the unedited webinar with three panelists and moderator Catalina Coleman of Built In as an on-demand recording.
Catalina Coleman, Senior Director, DEI, Built In: Leaders are sometimes silent when it comes to DEI because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. What advice would you give to people who hesitate to speak up?
Christy Pruitt-Haynes: So many organizations and individuals are afraid of ‘cancel culture’ right now. They don’t want to say the wrong thing and, as a result, they stay silent. Personally, I believe silence says much more than words ever could. When leaders are silent, they subtly — or not so subtly — send the message that DEI is not important to them. Often, that contradicts the words on their websites. My advice would be to keep in mind who you are as a company, what kind of culture you want and how you want to be known — and lean into that.
My second thought would be: At times, we are all going to say something that inadvertently steps on some toes. Unfortunately, it happens. But that’s when we own it, apologize and learn from it. We can use it as an opportunity to do better the next time.
CPH: First, I’d say: Don’t reach out only in times of difficulties. In 2020, as we all know, there were a series of events that started with the murder of George Floyd. In that moment, so many people were living with their nerves exposed. That’s a difficult time to now turn to me and ask me to educate an entire workforce — because I’m just trying to wake up every day and not live in fear.
If you ask for people’s engagement only at these high-pressure moments, it sends the message: We don’t need you for day-to-day decisions. We just need you to come in and make things look good. That’s when it feels like you’re doing something just for show.
Instead, you need to engage diverse voices in every decision you make. Ask my opinion when we’re launching a new marketing campaign. Ask my opinion when we’re crafting a message or securing vendors. Make it part of the natural, ongoing conversation.
Now, in difficult moments where you do want to give people a chance to lead if they choose, you can simply ask: Do you have the emotional capacity? Would you like to be a part of this conversation? Or do you need to just step away and take some time? And if so, that’s fine.
There will be individuals who want to use events as an opportunity to lead or share their thoughts and feelings. But you have to give them the option.
CPH: I sometimes refer to this as ‘The Parade Effect.’ Imagine you’re a parent, attending a parade with your two children. One child is sitting on your shoulders. The other child is standing next to you, holding your hand. The child who’s sitting on your shoulders sees everything. They can talk about how wonderful the floats were and how funny the clown was. But if you asked the child who was standing next to you, they likely saw the majority of that parade through someone’s legs. So the way that child describes it, even though they were in the same space, will be very different.
That’s what we see in organizations. People base their perspectives on their experience, and they forget that their experience is not universal. Often, leaders and managers will say, ‘Well, I ascended through the organization. So if I did it, clearly, everybody can.’
I like to say: All realities are real, but all realities are not universal. Leaders cannot lean into their experiences alone. They need to be curious about the experiences their people are having in their organization. And the important part is this: If people tell you they don’t feel they have the same opportunities as their peers, believe them. Believe them and enact habits and systems to help change those realities.
CPH: So often, when we hear DEI, we first think about race and gender — then we go to sexual orientation — and we forget there are so many other intersectionalities. The word ‘disability’ covers so many physical, mental and emotional conditions. Most people don’t realize how many folks we already have in the workplace who live with some type of disability.
As a perfect example, most people don’t know I am legally blind. I love being home because I can have my font as big as I need it. And I can navigate the space in a way that works really well for me without interfering with anyone else. I think this was one of the only good things to have come of the pandemic. People were given flexibility to work in ways that are best for them.
We need to remember we’re hiring people for what they can contribute. We need culture adds, not culture fits. When we understand that, we realize how important it is to create opportunities for people who may not have traditionally been part of our organizations. That only adds to the fabric of our companies and widens the skill sets we can pull from.
CC: Let’s address ageism. Tech employees in particular are overwhelmingly young, possibly because junior workers command lower salaries. But we’re also experiencing a mass exodus of Boomer workers, and that’s going to leave a gap. Why do we need to do a better job of retaining Boomers — or even just people over the age of 45 or 50?
CPH: As a proud member of that group, this question is very personally relevant to me. There is this idea that people time out, if you will, especially in the tech space. People assume that someone with 20-plus years of experience couldn’t have kept up with technology. We need to dispel that myth. It’s unfortunate that we forget individuals are lifelong learners.
Second, we have to keep in mind that there are invaluable skills — truly priceless skills — that come from experience. That might pertain specifically to a job or it might be about being able to guide and mentor other employees. Losing all that brainpower really does create gaps, and it becomes almost impossible for organizations to fill those gaps.
It’s a wonderful thing that we have five generations in the workforce right now. We just have to learn how to play to those groups’ strengths. You will always arrive at better solutions when you have more diversity of thought. Think of a member of Gen Z paired with a Boomer. Together, those two people will come up with a more innovative solution than either would alone.
CC: Any closing thoughts?
CPH: I would just say this is everybody’s work. This isn’t just the work of the DEI department or the HR department. We all have to own it — and understand how it contributes to the bottom line. It’s not just about doing the right thing. We hope for that, but it’s about business. When we get DEI right, we improve business results. When we get it wrong, there can be devastating effects.