DEI Demystified: Insights for Team Leaders to Lead Inclusively

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March is a month when we talk about women, women’s history, and of course, the three-letter acronym DEI comes out of every speech uttered across organizations. And this year, the three-letter acronym also faced some backlash across social media when some people thought that it was just a fad and tarnished DEI executives and advocates. In the US, where this acronym is more politically and capitalist-defined, premium institutions including top universities are facing a hard time deciding whether to have a position for DEI or not. The latest story is of Dr. Sherita Golden, the Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Johns Hopkins Medicine who ended up resigning from her position due to an internet backlash of her article in the newsletter where she defined the word “privilege” in a way that didn’t appeal to the elite class, including Donald Trump and Elon Musk*.

This article is not about whether a university should have a Chief Diversity Officer or not. But more about how we – collectively as a society – can probably eliminate the necessity for such a role!

How can organizations be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive? And more importantly, how can individuals like you and me contribute towards it?

Let’s first look at the 3-letter acronym more closely. It stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Now, each of these words is significant in any conversation! The first two words, Diversity and Equity, can be ensured in the workplace with systems and processes in place. However, the last word – Inclusion – is a difficult paradigm and needs more discussion now than ever.

Even with systems and processes in place, and despite diverse team representations, ensuring that every member feels included requires ongoing effort—beyond mere lip service. In this article, I focus on the concept of inclusion because it presents concrete actions that you and I can take to make team members feel valued and included, especially when they are new hires.

Tips for Team Leaders / Supervisors:

Imagine a person of color, racial identity, national identity, or even sexual identity joins our team, how can we make them feel included, and how can others feel connected to the new person?

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Here are some tips for you, if you are the team leader:

1. Welcome with Warmth: Ensure a proper welcome for your new team member. Introduce them to each team member, acknowledging their credentials. Make this introduction both formal and informal. Organize a team lunch or coffee where work-related discussions are set aside, and conversations about the new member’s background and culture take center stage. Demonstrate genuine interest in learning more about them. Listen attentively, refrain from criticizing their decisions or dismissing their ideas, and avoid making insensitive comments. While most companies provide welcome kits and merchandise as part of the induction, it’s the gestures of the surrounding team that hold more emotional value and matter most.

2. Make them Heard: In initial work meetings, ensure the new hire is encouraged to speak. They may hesitate initially due to various fears, apprehensions, or imposter syndrome. As a leader, your role is crucial in making them feel comfortable participating in future discussions.

3. Establish Clear Communication Channels: Make sure that the new hire is given orientation on communication channels and how others in the team also include the new person in their communication. It’s quite possible that due to the large volume of administrative processes, communications might be missed. Remember: A technical or clerical mistake might be taken by the new hire as an “I am not included” message.

4. Body Language Matters: Imagine you walk into a room, and no one smiles at you or acknowledges your arrival in contrast to walking into a room where people authentically smile at you, say hi to you, and genuinely compliment small things. Where would you want to be? Now, as a leader – your body language matters the most. Do you acknowledge every member – despite how “tiny” their role is in the team? Just calling by name or exchanging pleasantries makes a whole lot of difference. This is important not just in formal settings but also in informal settings. Now, this is not just the role of the leader, but also every other team member in the team. How do we make others understand that? Being a role model.

5. Promote Psychological Safety: Trust-building takes time. You will need to keep reiterating your availability as a leader for any concerns. You will need to ask both formally and informally about any concerns or issues they have until the new hire navigates the system. Create a safe and supportive environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their opinions, asking questions, and sharing feedback. Foster a culture of trust and mutual respect where individuals can be vulnerable without fear of repercussion.

6. Address Microaggressions and Biases: Be vigilant about addressing microaggressions, stereotypes, and biases that may arise within the team. Foster a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory behavior and intervene promptly to address any instances of exclusion or marginalization. And yes, self-reflect on your behavior as well – Are you having any limiting biases or engaging in microaggressions yourself?

7. Seek Feedback and Act on It: Regularly solicit feedback from team members about their experiences and perceptions of inclusion within the team. Take concrete steps to address any areas for improvement and demonstrate a commitment to continuous learning and growth in fostering an inclusive environment.

8. Develop Cultural Competence: Lastly, remain open-minded to acknowledge every type of person and their cultural background. This is easier said than done, especially considering the myriad unconscious biases we all harbor. “Cultural Intelligence” and “Cultural Competencies” are likely to become pivotal soft skills in the coming decade, as our business world becomes increasingly collaborative and diverse.

Students walk through Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Image Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

I have been fortunate to work with people from various segments of society, belonging to various nations, races, etc. And every time, I realize how my perspectives change when there is a diverse set of people at a table discussing a topic. In my previous role as a Fellow at Stanford Gendered Innovations Lab, I was fortunate to learn about the immense potential that gender, sex, and intersectional diversity can bring to corporations and institutions.

As the world of AI and Robotics strives to make their products “more humane,” it is imperative that humans don’t forget that being human is also about respecting and constantly evolving into a better version of ourselves—one who is open-minded, receptive, and respectful to every other person or animal on the planet.

During this Women’s Month, let’s also take some time to reflect upon the meaning of “Invest in her: Accelerate progress” and what it means to each of us—especially as leaders.

Universal Love & Abundance


(Dr. CeeVee is the pen name of Dr. Chandra Vadhana R, Founder of Prayaana Labs and Managing Editor, of SheSight Magazine)

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