CHICAGO — Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are non-negotiables for any business that wants to stand the test of time. Future-fit organizations are committed to keeping employees of all races, cultures, genders, orientations and experiences happy and engaged. They know that focusing on people — and helping them thrive — is the key to staying relevant and profitable for the long haul.
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of the police, organizations of all kinds began making unprecedented investments in DEI. However, as Johnson sees it, these investments are not creating lasting inclusion because the initiatives that are being embraced by businesses are reactionary, supplemental and too often cosmetic rather than systemic.
"Companies had to react [because] the ground was kind of on fire in a way. … [But] what very few of them did was really think about this as a systemic issue rather than a symptomatic one," said Johnson, who for more than 20 years has been instrumental in helping organizations and their people create extraordinary business outcomes.
The strategist and author — who hosts a monthly Reconstructing Inclusion Podcast — contends that if modern-day organizations want to be just and fair and give everyone the opportunity to make the best contributions to the business, then those principles need to be built into everything the organization does vs. "window dressing."
"I use the word 'cosmetic' because sometimes we put window dressing on things, and we don't necessarily understand that if the window dressing is in front of the window and the window's dirty, we still aren't going to be able to see out," Johnson explained. "We didn't necessarily create a system to keep our windows clean — what I would call equity — constantly polishing those windows so that we can see clearly into the organization. And we didn't do it in a way that could be sustained because it wasn't aligned with organizational purpose. It was kind of aligned with the emotions and the feeling of the day. Totally legitimate, but incomplete if you wanted to create something that is long term. And what we're seeing now is a response to that."
DEI Is a "We Thing"
When implementing DEI initiatives, some organizations unintentionally create an us-versus-them dynamic. Instead of creating belonging, companies can create "othering" for those within the organization who may feel like their identity isn't necessarily relevant at that particular time, Johnson observed. The goal is to identify DEI as a "we thing" by recognizing that all races, genders, orientations and ability levels should be empowered to become their best self.
At its core, becoming a future-fit organization means utilizing diversity to create agility and to create innovation by empowering employees and providing an encouraging environment.
"If you want to be a future-fit organization, we can have all of our affinities, or what I would say are our identities, but our humanity is the focus. Humanity is the superset; our identities are the subset. All are important, but they're all interdependent. You need all of them. There's no conflict or competition. There might be tension, but that tension — kind of like a bridge — is an opportunity to grow and create something extraordinary," Johnson said.
"Replace us and them with we. Make sure everybody understands that DEI is everyone and that we can put things in place that create the conditions for everyone. Everyone has a unique situation, but we can always create those conditions for everyone to thrive," he added.
For organizations that have not yet invested in DEI, Johnson recommends one basic practice that is often overlooked when rolling out diversity and inclusion initiatives: listening. Inclusion can be a lot of things, he said, but organizations need to listen, figure out what it is people need, and then put those things into actions that create thriving outcomes.
Johnson, who is an epidemiologist by trade, believes in taking a humanity-centric approach to DEI, whereby what is happening in employees' organizational lives based on their physical appearance, background, cultures and values collectively collide at the same time. Therefore, humanity is what connects everyone and there isn't a way to separate one person from another.
"When I talk about humanity, that's something that connects us all and allows us the ability to understand that we're all in this together. Organizations are interdependent entities, even though we have different identities and lots of intersections and our identities change all the time," he explained. "A [humanity-centric approach] is dealing with that tension, dealing with that complexity, working through it, listening to each other, making sense of things with each other as you're making decisions and putting things into action. And as a result of that, you probably can do a lot more for your organization than just make everybody feel like you're doing a good job at DEI. You actually could help your organization advance."
A Systemic Approach
To create lasting inclusion and empower all stakeholders to thrive, Johnson created a framework that is centered on developing "inclusion systems." To make inclusion normative, this system-within-a-system strategy puts actionable items in place that can sustain that notion. These vectors are necessary to make inclusion accessible, actionable and sustainable.
One aspect of this is dismantling meritocracies and changing the way organizations reward employees. Meritocracy is a word coined by Baron Michel Young, a sociologist and social reformist. It combines the notions of merit and aristocracy, whereby affluence sets people apart from each other.
"Meritocracy, when we anchor on it in organizational life, we begin to think that those people who have historically had more means, that they're better. The reality is with meritocracy … then you're missing an opportunity for those people that didn't have as much access," Johnson said. "Meritocracy is a myth. It just is incomplete and sometimes it could have bad outcomes because of its incompleteness."
Johnson concluded with one final thought: What makes diversity, equity and inclusion non-negotiables for any organization is that diversity is inevitable, inclusion is smart business and equity means companies aren't always reacting to social dynamics. Instead, they're proactive about them.
"It's all about thriving. It's all about having an organization that's generative," Johnson emphasized. "Create conditions for everybody to thrive."
A replay of "Become a Future-Fit Organization by Investing in DEI" is available here.
Convenience Store News — with underwriting support from Altria Group Distribution Co., The Coca-Cola Co., The Hershey Co., WorkJam and Constellation Brands — has launched an industrywide initiative to facilitate engagement among all stakeholders in the convenience channel around diversity, equity and inclusion. This platform is designed to be a catalyst for discussion, innovation, engagement and action.
The Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion program is part of The Convenience Inclusion Initiative, a multifaceted effort by Convenience Store News to champion a modern-day convenience store industry where current and emerging leaders foster an inclusive work culture that celebrates differences, allows team members to bring their whole selves to work, and enables companies to benefit from diversity of thought and background.