Before we dive into the process of getting buy-in let's talk about the concept of "buy-in" and what it actually means. According to Webster "buy-in" is:
Acceptance of and willingness to actively support and participate in something (such as a proposed new plan or policy)
Getting executive buy-in isn't about getting leadership to sign off on a "DEI Program." A DEI program isn't a DEI strategy. At least, I don't think that is the appropriate language to use, but that's another topic for another day. It isn't about "DEI efforts" either. According to the definition above, buy-in requires action and intention. It isn't a simple "yes" or agreeance to something.
I created a process model with four phases (baseline phase, questioning phase, interest phase, commitment phase or buy-in) to illustrate what I think is the process of getting executive leadership buy-in.
In the Baseline Phase of the model, this is where a lot of executive leadership sits. Even if they know what DEI stands for oftentimes people outside of the DEI space do not fully grasp the true meaning of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Especially as it relates to the workplace.
As a DEI practitioner begins the process of getting buy-in it is important that there is a level of education to ensure that all leadership are on the same page as far as DEI awareness is concerned. That is what brings us to the Questioning Phase.
In the Questioning Phase, leaders have learned about the true meaning of DEI and why it is important to commit to using a lens of equity in the business operations, but they still haven't accepted this yet. This is the phase that a lot of DEI practitioners feel pressured to bring up the "business case" of DEI to further convince leadership it's "worth the investment."
Using the business case to justify DEI creates a never-ending cycle of having to prove the worth of DEI as it relates to money and how much the company can make. This in and of itself is inequitable and goes against the very essence of DEI in the workplace, and it also detracts from the humanity of employees. The business case reinforces that employees are simply cogs in a machine designed to make companies more money.
Once leadership accepts and internalizes the importance of DEI within their company, they move on to the Interest Phase.
A lot of companies get stuck in the "interest" phase, which in my opinion is the "performative DEI" phase, and DEI practitioners get tricked into thinking they have buy-in. In this phase, leadership views DEI as a tool for their gain and is the outcome of using the business case in the Questioning Phase to get leaders on board. The interest phase is when companies focus on the monetary-based results and the notoriety that can come from being "an industry leader" in DEI.
Interest in DEI isn't the same as commitment or buy-in. If we go back to our definition, acceptance and active support is what commitment/buy-in is. Companies get stuck in this phase because DEI practitioners compromise with leadership and settle for what we can get. Or, leadership, even if they are well intentioned, says all the right words just so that we can move forward.
In this phase, it is the job of the DEI practitioner to hold the leadership accountable to fully committing to DEI in an intentional way. Once this happens, we move on to the Buy-in Phase.
This is where we DEI practitioners have the autonomy to do the job they were hired to do. Leadership is committed to supporting the DEI practitioner, is willing to actively participate in the DEI strategy development process, and also holds themselves accountable and embraces transparency.
In summary, we get buy-in so that leadership is on board with developing a DEI strategy that includes ALL departments. Asking for a DEI program or to start DEI efforts minimizes the work and will only result in surface-level work. DEI efforts (trainings, educational curriculum, speakers, etc.) should happen as a part of a DEI strategy, not before or separate from a strategy. Without a strategy, there is no guidance or intention behind anything you do, and you will not create sustainable change within your organization.
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