How to overcome DEI resistance

dei resistance

Human beings are naturally resistant to change, and DEI change is no exception. Understanding the different reasons for resistance to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as well as forms of resistance that manifest within an organization, can allow us to address and eliminate it. 

Resistance to DEI change in employees usually stems from a lack of understanding of: 

  • how others experience the workplace differently to them; 
  • how DEI relates to them as an individual; and
  • what does the change mean for their own career or experiences at work.

This is why building awareness about what DEI is and how it helps everyone in the organization thrive at work is key to decreasing resistance. 

What are the different forms of resistance to DEI?

Resistance can be seen most commonly in three different forms (Gartner, 2022):

  1. Denial: “This is not a problem.”
  2. Disengagement: “This is not my problem.”
  3. Derailment: “What about other problems?”

Someone who is a denier does not see diversity, equity, and inclusion as something that needs to be improved in the first place. People who show resistance through denial may say something like “There is only one race, the human race,” or “Diverse people simply aren’t applying for our positions.” Denial is a form of resistance that shuts down any discussions about creating DEI change because according to these resisters, there is no problem in the first place. However, these employees may not realize or understand that employees from marginalized groups often experience the workplace differently from the majority. 

Someone who is disengaged may recognize that there is a problem, but regardless of whether they see the problem, they do not think it is their problem to solve. By not recognizing their privilege and their potential to be an ally, these resisters take on a passive, bystander role instead. As someone who belongs to the majority group, they may not understand how DEI relates to them individually and why it should be their priority to fix it. In practice, someone who is disengaged may say something like “I behave appropriately so this is not my issue,” or “Should we really be using company time to solve this issue?” It can be difficult to get people who are disengaged on board with company DEI efforts unless they understand how DEI supports everyone and why their role is important in creating DEI change.

Employees who derail diminish the issues that marginalized groups face by pivoting the focus back to the majority group. These resisters may impede any conversations about DEI by dismissing problems that marginalized groups experience and questioning why the focus is on certain groups only. These employees may say something like “Don’t all lives matter?” or “Why aren’t we talking about how DEI is making it harder for white men to get jobs these days?” These types of resisters may be the most outspoken and it may seem challenging to get them on board. However, their resistance comes from misunderstanding what DEI will mean for their own career or experiences at work and therefore seeing DEI as a threat.   

What can organizations do to eliminate DEI resistance?

So what do we do when there is resistance to DEI change? Each form of resistance comes from a lack of awareness and understanding about what DEI really is and what the outcome of DEI work will look like. Therefore, building awareness is the first step to building sustainable DEI change within an organization. Without this key step, DEI change will not succeed.

Increasing awareness about DEI can address the causes of resistance and can help turn resistance into understanding, allowing cultural transformation to occur within the organization. Awareness building can look different depending on the form of resistance. 

Deniers may need to understand that different people experience the organization in different ways. Implementing employee resource groups, learning days, and even mentoring programs can be a great way for employees to listen to their colleagues who belong to marginalized groups and better understand the range of experiences that people have had in the workplace. Conducting an internal DEI survey and sharing the results with the entire organization can also help to raise awareness about differences in experiences between different groups of employees.

Disengagers may need help understanding how DEI initiatives will benefit everyone in the organization, and that diversity is more complex than one might think at first glance. This can be accomplished through training sessions to build a positive understanding of diversity and how inclusion benefits everyone, including the majority. Allyship training can also help turn disengaged employees into active allies who recognize that their privilege can be used to further DEI initiatives within their organization.

Derailers may hold many misconceptions about DEI and therefore could use clarity on what the change will mean for their own career and their experiences within the organization. These employees could benefit from one-on-one conversations with their supervisor or a DEI lead that address their specific concerns and provide a safe space for them to express their perspectives. Hosting a town hall meeting explaining the DEI measures that will be implemented and what they will look like in action can also provide clarification and space for people to ask questions. Finally, actively communicating about common misconceptions and providing answers, as well as sharing about the current DEI initiatives, can build transparency, understanding, and trust among employees who are fearful of these changes.

Anticipate, plan, execute

It is best to already anticipate resistance when planning your DEI initiatives. For instance, you can expect to see resistant behaviors coming from groups that are heavily invested in how things are done today. You can also expect resistant behaviors from people in parts of the organization that experience the most drastic changes or where changes have failed in the past. Proactively identifying where resistance might come from will help you plan for it.

It’s also important to create a plan for how you will address resistance and who you will need on board from the beginning. For example, team leads should be equipped with tools on how to address and mitigate any resistance from team members. Additionally, plan different training sessions and communication methods for building awareness and answering questions.

Finally, execute your plan. Use the power of storytelling, have leaders set an example, and provide updates about your organization’s DEI progress.

Creating sustainable DEI change within an organization requires a substantial cultural shift driven through both structural and behavioral transformation. As implementing DEI requires action from each individual, eliminating resistance to DEI within organizations is essential for fostering that meaningful change. Recognizing the various forms of resistance—denial, disengagement, and derailment—sheds light on the underlying misconceptions and fears that hinder progress. However, by anticipating resistance and creating a plan, organizations can effectively mitigate resistance through awareness building and pave the way for genuine cultural transformation.

Join Us for an Exclusive Webinar: Overcoming Resistance to DEI

Want to learn more about how to overcome resistance to DEI? Our upcoming webinar for the Inklusiiv Community will dive deeper into the challenges resistance presents, as well as additional awareness-raising tools your organization can use. Interested in joining? By investing in any of our services, you will gain access to all Inklusiiv Community events for one year, including webinars where you can learn more about relevant DEI topics for people leading DEI work, newsletters that will enable you to stay up to date on topical DEI discussions, and multiple networking opportunities with peers from other organizations committed to advancing DEI.

If your organization is already one of our clients, reach out to us at to register.

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