DEI Club

Balancing activism with professionalism

Professional activist or activistic professional?

DEI Club spoke with Stephen Frost, former Head of D&I for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and Founder of Included - a global impact-led D&I consultancy, about the nature of this challenge.

Most DEI professionals are activists by heart. Activism involves taking a strong, passionate stance on issues related to social justice and equity, often involving challenging the status quo and advocating for change. As activists we bring attention to inequities and push for change. But activism must be combined with professionalism if we want to be taken seriously in business environments!

So how can we balance activism and professionalism as DEI professionals to get the impact we want?

The challenge comes when trying to integrate activism and professionalism in the context of DEI work. While activism may be necessary to push for change and address systemic inequities, it can also be perceived as disruptive or unprofessional. Conversely, focusing solely on professionalism, which emphasizes neutrality, objectivity, and respect for established norms, can perpetuate the status quo and hinder progress towards greater equity and inclusion.

Overstating the business case

I absolutely recognize the challenge - personally, professionally, from conversations with friends, and with clients. It’s important to talk about. People who don’t like DEI or feel threatened by it ask you for the business case. They ask why DEI matters. Some DEI professionals overstate the business case, which can undermine credibility. 

DEI is just one of many variables that improve the business. Acknowledging that upfront is important – especially in conversations with people who are sceptical or defensive. 

There is a business case for DEI, no doubt – but there are multiple issues impacting company performance. Getting it in context and framing it realistically is important for buy-in. 

Passion as a two-edged sword 

Whenever I’ve spoken with clients, one thing they will often comment on in informal settings is that they love our passion. But as DEI professionals our passion doesn’t come from the business case – e.g., improving performance by X percent. It comes from somewhere else. 

It comes from a personal place – perhaps one has experienced exclusion, discrimination, or a significant life event. That passion can be both positive and negative. Passion can be terrifying for others, and it can be inspirational. The challenge for DEI professionals is how do you package the passion in a way that fosters buy-in? How do you display your passion in a way that engages others while being authentic and real? 

As DEI professionals we must always be mindful of the goal - oftentimes that’s getting buy-in, funding, etc. - and then package our passion in a way that helps us achieve those goals.

It's not about us

As DEI professionals, it is important to understand that our work is not about us, but rather about the key stakeholders we work with. If you're working in a traditional Western context, then 9 out of 10 times these are white middle-aged men. If we are not able to make them listen, we will get nowhere. If people sense that you are working with DEI out of self-interest, then it’s about you, not about them. And they’ll disengage. It’s all about framing; DEI is about all of us. 

As DEI Professionals we must also be aware of our own privileges and they will vary depending on our social identities, experiences, and backgrounds. As a white male I have privilege in the sense that clients and other stakeholders expect me to be a smart, professional businessperson. I’ve got that privilege. 

As a woman you’re facing both a stereotype threat and a double bind. What this means is that you can either play into the stereotype by exhibiting traditionally feminine traits such as warmth and compassion by which you may be perceived as likeable, but also as less competent and less credible. Or you can behave assertively and challenge with the risk of being perceived as “bossy” or unlikeable.

Walking the line between colluding and challenging 

The tactics we use as DEI professionals vary – it depends on who we are and who our stakeholders are. But it almost always require us to walk the line between colluding and challenging. 

I like to compare it to a symphony – you must go with the music. If you are constantly being noisy nobody will listen. Instead, you play a little piece of music and if your audience listens, you can play the next section and perhaps this time a bit louder or softer – but you need that variety to make people want to keep listening. 

As DEI professionals, it is important to strike this balance between colluding and challenging to make meaningful change. As a starting point, it is important to build trust and establish a positive relationship with stakeholders, which may require some level of collaboration and compromise. 

In very practical terms this involves using our insights about affinity bias wisely. For example, if they are talking about sports – and you hate sports – then talk about sports for 30 seconds and then change the subject. If they drink alcohol and you don’t, hang out with them in the bar for a little while with your non-alcoholic beverage. You can do these things without compromising your values. Such small actions are important if we want to build trust - the foundation of relationships - with people who are different from us. 

Once we’ve earned their trust, we can more easily challenge them because now they listen. 

Adapting our approach 

The approach we take should of course vary depending on the context and stakeholders. As DEI professionals we must know what buttons to press and in what order. If the stakeholders are already very sympathetic to DEI - that is, they are aware of DEI issues and are willing to learn - then there is already something to build on and we can start the conversation at a very different place than when faced with stakeholders who are skeptical or even downright hostile. 

We must be strategic about when to be empathetic, when to be rational, when to be soft, when to be firm, and so on. It depends on the situation and it is a judgement call. 

Ongoing preparation is also key. The more in depth understanding of your stakeholders you can build through research, conversations, diagnostics, etc. the more wisely you can spend your time with them.  

DEI is change management 

Any change program is likely to face a range of stakeholder opinions, from advocates who fully support the change, to detractors who oppose it, and people in between who have mixed feelings

Advocates are green and it’s all about providing them with fuel and evidence. The reds can be your derailers and we are often inclined to give them a lot of attention. But if you only focus on your derailers, you will demotivate the others. 

It’s a much better strategy to focus on the greens and yellows and to be ready to shut down any rabbit holes from the reds. You want to get the yellow people speaking and pair them up with the green ones. The greens are already there. The yellows are listening, and they want the reds to be challenged to be convinced themselves. 

So, your job is to get the red stakeholders to turn yellow and the yellow stakeholders to turn green. To do that you need to be mindful of everything we’ve discussed – which, to sum it up, is all about striking that delicate balance between activism/professionalism and being attuned to the specific context and stakeholders.