DEI Club

Uncomfortable conversations

Everybody benefits when the Pink Elephant is addressed in DEI conversations

Tiptoeing around sensitive topics or forcing attitudes on other people are inefficient strategies for advancing the DEI agenda as they will only create more resistance and avoidance, according to Rikke Sick Børgesen, who besides being a psychologist is also partner in the consulting firm Implement Consulting Group where she is responsible for their Female Partner Program aimed at advancing female talent. We asked Rikke to share from her vast experience.

To enable sustainable DEI change, we must address the pink elephant in the room – that is, encourage uncomfortable conversations about equity and diversity topics, says Rikke Sick Børgesen, Business Psychologist and DEI Club member. She believes that the key to creating lasting behavioral change is to foster a learning environment that allows for divergent perspectives to be shared and embraced.

How can companies identify enablers and take the actions that will bring about behavior change necessary for creating a truly inclusive environment?

Rikke: I absolutely agree that it is challenging to convert DEI efforts into lasting behavioral change. When we initiated the Female Partner Program, we experienced a lot of diversity fatigue and skepticism around the topic of diversity. It was as if people entered DEI discussions like they would enter a battlefield – as a place where you could be attacked armed with weapons and defenses expecting to fight an intellectual battle. The topic was much more sensitive than we had thought.

We quickly realized that we had to ease the defensive reactions we met and that the key was to engage the people who were most critical in the process and activities. We realized that it wasn’t fruitful to work with women or other underrepresented groups in isolation but needed to bring everyone onboard. - We knew from research and experience that women-only programs don’t work. 

An explorative process 

So, what did you do more specifically to ease the defensiveness?

Rikke: We designed an explorative process. Rather than putting people through a fixed training program with learning objectives and providing all the answers, we took a different approach. We believe the key to real change is to support people’s individual learning journeys. That implies asking questions rather than providing all the answers and designing solutions together. 

So, we gathered loads of internal data and looked at it in an explorative and curious manner: What does the data tell us? We combined the quantitative data with personal narratives about having been at the receiving end of bias. 

We introduced a ground rule in our workshops that it was safe to express opinions that were not necessarily politically correct. We accepted that it came with a risk of heated discussions and encouraged everyone to listen with curiosity and challenge each other respectfully. In this way we allowed the pink elephant to enter the room. We chose discomfort over silence in the recognition that silence gets us nowhere. Discomfort is unavoidable if we want to make sustainable progress. 

Setting up experiments

One thing is how you worked with people in facilitated workshops etc. - what did you do in practice to enable real change?

Rikke: We designed a series of experiments to continue the experiential and curious approach. The idea was to test and assess the impact of the experiments together and let everyone have a say in the process. The playfulness of experiments provided a space for creativity and for learning and reduced the sensitivity around the subject that we initially encountered. We hoped that an experiential approach would foster intrinsic motivation as it would prove how everyone benefits from diversity. And it worked! 

Great, can you share an example? 

Rikke: One experiment involved trying a dual partnership model. That meant including women in Business Unit Leadership functions. We wanted to assess to what extent mixing genders changed the dynamics. And it did. People reported that the nature of conversations changed, which impacted decisions – for example in relation to conversations around reward and compensation. The concept is spreading now as a result – people feel very inspired by the outcome and want to experiment with solutions like this. With this approach we don’t force practices on others but rely on inner motivation – just as we had hoped.

As a side effect more women speak up more about becoming partners now. Before we started experimenting many women didn’t actively pursue a partner position. One of the reasons was that they couldn’t see role models in the partner group. Now they can and that has increased the desire amongst our talented women to become partner at Implement Consulting Group. We know from data that the representation of other women in the partner group matters and sparks confidence - if she can do it, I can do it.

We are also implementing new procedures around the conversations we have with our females just below partner level where we now proactively reach out to those female talents and tell them how much we appreciate them and ask if they aspire to become partners. Simply because we know that men and women function differently in this area. 

Change as a movement 

You mentioned initially that to create real change, the entire organization must be engaged. Can you share how you go about this?

Rikke: Yes, our approach is to treat DEI change as a movement. It is rooted in a belief that people will take ownership of change if we let them - and that the best change initiatives will emerge through the collective and not be forced into existence. So instead of forcing change, we are inviting people to shape the change through a bunch of different activities – through surveys, food for thought sessions, inspiration days and experiments. Additionally, we have set targets for 2025 where we aim to be 21% female partners. To some it might seem a low number, but it is quite a lot considering the speed of our growth. 

Although we have seen a positive outcome of our approach to DEI, we are acutely aware that we have a steep learning curve and a never-ending cultural journey ahead of us. 

What would be your one advice for our DEI Club members? 

Rikke: That would be to enter DEI work with tolerance and patience as that has worked well for us. Creating a trustful space where everyone feels heard and included and encourage a learning mindset. When change or opinions are forced upon us many of us feel less inclined to do it – it’s a basic human instinct called psychological reactance. Everyone must enter dialogues and discussions with a learner mindset - that means being open to the fact that we might be wrong.