Heat and Light approaches to DE&I

The question of how to influence human behavior to realize a common goal has plagued leaders since the dawn of time. Is a ‘softly, softly’ approach that ‘shines a light’ preferable for diminishing grievances? Or is a firm, zero tolerance, ‘turn up the heat’ methodology the best way to get people in line?

History is full of individuals and movements which have used one or the other with varying degrees of success – including different groups with a shared goal. Whereas the Suffragists campaigned for women’s right to vote using peaceful, constitutional campaign tactics, the Suffragettes opted for a more militant approach.

But if you’re a business leader looking to drive improvements in an area as sensitive as Diversity & Inclusion, which is right? The answer, it turns out, is both. Rather than agonizing over whether to choose ‘Heat’ or ‘Light’ as an all-encompassing approach, leaders must recognize that both have value. The question is which to apply, and when.

The tendency for those most concerned with this issue (often DE&I and ERG leaders) is to lean towards heat, but it all depends on the context. The key is to be intentional about the right mix for your company, right now.

People in minority groups understandably want to be heard and the heat-based approach provides an immediate and unequivocal valve to share anger or frustration. This group’s voice will be the loudest and the audience business leaders are usually most worried about offending.

However, taking a heat-based approach is not without risk and many organizations that have opted for this methodology have experienced problems already. After all, a heat-based approach is intended to aggravate a situation thus making adverse reactions more likely. A light-based approach, on the other hand, is more likely to marginalize only active detractors to inclusion, bringing the majority with you in due course.

Balancing moderate and radical reactions

It’s a concept explored by Dolly Chugh, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at New York University, in her book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. In an interview with Behavioral Scientist, Dolly said, “When historians study social-justice movements, they find that movements that only have heat or only have light tend to not make as much progress. Successful movements have both – a more moderate and a more radical flank, if you will.”

Yet, there are times when erring towards one approach or the other is advisable. An example of where heat might be preferable, is with racism. So hurtful and damaging to those affected, and so roundly abhorred by most, companies do well to turn up the thermostat and make clear that any incident of racial prejudice will be met with zero tolerance. Concepts such as ‘white privilege’ however, are more complex and attract more varied reactions. Accordingly, a gentler, ‘lighter’ approach is more likely, in time, to shape opinions and attitudes.

For those moments where the choice between heat and light seems a bit overwhelming, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg provided words that will apply to almost any situation and act as an effective goal for any organization:

“Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

For more information on transforming diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace download The Inclusion Solution, the new whitepaper from MindGym that reveals for the very first time, our proven approach to DE&I that is being used by the world’s most progressive companies.

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