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Fundamentals

Managing Member Pushback to DEI Initiatives

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You’ve got a great DEI strategy—all you need to do is put it in place and it’s smooth sailing all the way, right? Not so fast. Here’s what to do if you encounter pushback from members.

The Controlled Release Society ended up in a building-the-plane-while-flying-it situation when it encountered member pushback at the outset of developing its DEI plan. The group had to quickly shift gears and simultaneously craft a response plan to manage the fallout.

As an international organization, some members in other countries complained that DEI is such an “American concept,” and the problems, especially around race, don’t apply to them and should have been fixed a long time ago. Others pointed out that marginalized groups in the U.S. are dominant groups in their countries, and some bristled at the notion of being told what to do.

“It really brought home that every single one of our members is seeing their own microcosm as the be-all and end-all,” said CRS CEO Gabrielle Copperwheat. “So very quickly we had to change our mindset to think globally and locally at the same time.”

CRS divided its response plan into three touchpoints:

  • Localization: ongoing education and continual information
  • Personalization: regularly rewarding and celebrating achievements at all levels
  • Globalization: collaborating across the globe and integrating in all parts of the member and volunteer leader journey

Think Globally, Apply Locally

Copperwheat came up with the three-pronged concept. Before becoming an association executive, she engaged in the localization and globalization of software and worked with various ministries around the world. “One of the important facts that you have to keep in mind all the time is you’re developing something for the globe,” she said. “So, you have to have a common language globally, but it also has to apply locally.”

CRS engaged its local chapters and leaders there and trained them by giving them the tools to understand CRS’s DEI mindset so they could buy into what the group was trying to initiate in the scientific community.

“We’re trying to create more of a global organization, a space where everyone can bloom and develop as a scientist,” Copperwheat said. When the group came at it from a local perspective, Copperwheat said members didn’t hear “Oh you guys are just American,” anymore.

Although its chapters used to operate independently, as part of CRS’s globalization efforts, it created networking bridges around DEI among all its chapters. The open chain of communication and continual information was set up very early. The group also found that regularly rewarding achievements in many areas was positive and encouraging.

“We’ve elevated some of our volunteers that we could see propagating the appropriate culture and helping to build it or pioneer it in their own areas to group leaders,” Copperwheat said. For example, CRS hosts leadership forums, which are like town halls, and posts videos from them on its website. “Everyone gets to celebrate the success together,” she said.

Once the group put in place the globalization, personalization, and localization message—which put the DEI plan in perspective for members by meeting them where they are—the response has been “tremendous,” Copperwheat said. Now, instead of pushing back, members come to the group and ask how they can help advance DEI.

“We have changed the direction away from being defensive or responsive,” Copperwheat said. “We’ve become futurists at the same time as we’re developing.”

“Make sure you honor the opportunity to hear from people about what their issues and concerns are so you can weigh how it aligns with the mission and vision of the organization.” —Mariama Boney, CAE, Achieve More LLC

Be the Change You Want to See

As an international organization, CRS had a much larger playing field to manage, i.e., the world stage. Closer to home, DEI expert Mariama Boney, CAE, CEO of Achieve More LLC, offers some practical, on-the-ground tips for how to manage pushback on organizational DEI efforts.

Lead by example. The CEO and the senior team must do a self-check to make sure everyone is aligned and clear about why the organization is putting a DEI plan in place. “You’ve got to be the change you want to see,” Boney said. Staff must have a clear understanding, too, because they have an impact at various levels and partnerships with volunteer leaders, members, and the board.

Read the room. Don’t assume everyone is on board. Create situations where you’re either having a dialogue or listening sessions to understand where people are coming from. “Everyone wants to be heard,” Boney said. “Make sure you honor the opportunity to hear from people about what their issues and concerns are so you can weigh how it aligns with the mission and vision of the organization.”

Take note. By shifting the conversation into listening mode, it will help reveal what people’s primary motivations are. “Listen for the understanding, rather than to be understood,” Boney said. And that will help in crafting a message, so people understand it’s not about what’s being taken away, it’s about what’s being added. Organizations should have a response that is clear, consistent, appropriate, and multicultural in nature.

Build a team. Look for champions to help deliver the message at every level—including volunteer leaders, the executive board, chapter leaders, members, and influential staff. Ideally it is someone who has won an award from the organization because they have demonstrated an alignment with its mission and the vision. All those people can help manage the message in an authentic and transparent way.

Overall, in crafting DEI messaging, it’s important to remember nothing is going to be perfect. “DEI is connected to people’s personal experience, professional experience, culture, and it’s rooted in human dynamics and history,” Boney said. “To think you’re not going to get a reaction is very naïve.”

The key thing is how to manage the message. “Help people remember that it’s about DEI integration and innovation, it’s not about DEI being an add-on,” Boney said.

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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