Diversity Fatigue


Herbert C. Smith, Ph.D.As noted in the March 20, 2006, edition of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” America is turned on its head over the issue of diversity fatigue — what it is, what to do about it, and when. The term “diversity fatigue” was first coined in the news media in discussions about the lack of diversity in the newsroom. It was ultimately defined as a form of mental exhaustion brought on by the constant attention required to ensure a workforce or other group is racially or ethnically diverse.


For decades, workplaces in America have struggled to catch up with the country’s diversity of races, genders, and more recently, sexual orientation, religion and differing abilities. Companies have been investing big bucks for workshops, seminars and other training sessions lasting a couple of hours, sometimes all day, where workers discuss differences, commonalities play roles, and individuals analyze their behavior. Many employers have beefed up recruiting efforts to attract a more representative cross-section of American talent.


But when it is all said and done, it’s all said and done, and most believe little has changed. Minorities and women are not moving up the ladder quickly.  They are proving difficult to retain, and many will tell you that the efforts that have produced a $200 billion diversity industry have not changed the underlying culture of their work environments. Some managers even admit to a malaise —diversity fatigue.


When we asked chief diversity officers what comes to mind when they hear the term “diversity fatigue,” the responses ranged from frustration, anger, lack of power to help others, little clarity around issues of rank and status, inability to control their own destinies and career progression, and just downright uncertainty about the job. One respondent described the feeling as a sense of occupational burnout. Diversity fatigue is the result of being on a battleground without bullets or the armor needed to be successful in the war for social inclusion. The overwhelming comment from the chief diversity officers we spoke with was that they are sick and tired of trying to convince leaders to do the right things for all people. Change starts at the top.


In addressing diversity fatigue in your organization, you have to start with yourself. First, define what diversity fatigue means for you, as an individual, not just the organization. How do you feel about this topic? What is your experience of diversity fatigue, and how are you managing it? Do you have a sense that you and your board have been struggling with this issue? Is it time to address it? Until you can answer those questions, you can’t arrive at solutions for leading others and managing the change you or your boards want, or need, to see.


Second, ask a tough question: What is your mission? Does it align with your organization’s mission? Do you have a commitment to addressing diversity fatigue?  Is your organization’s mission sufficient to allow you to do so? What are the challenges, what are the opportunities for leading change? Does the mission need to be revisited in order for your organization to get at diversity fatigue?


Third, who are your primary and supporting customers? How will these customers change in the next three, five, ten years? Will they be better served if you and your organization get at the issue of diversity fatigue?  Will you be able to serve them better knowing your organization has addressed the issue?


Fourth, what does your customer value? Is a diverse workforce a value that your customers hold? Do your employees reflect the customers you serve? Does your board?  What other knowledge do you need from your customers, and how will you gain that knowledge and share it with your leaders to effect change?


Fifth, how will you define and mea-sure results? How will you determine success?  What can you do to get better, and what should you abandon because it has become obsolete? Will the success of your efforts to combat diversity fatigue advance the desired results?


Sixth, what is your plan? Should your mission be changed? Are you able to advance change? What are your goals? Does your intent to address the issue of workforce diversity advance organizational goals? Is your board supportive of and engaged in your struggle with diversity fatigue? Can they, and will they, support your ability to lead people, and manage change?


According to Peter Drucker, managing yourself is the key characteristic of becoming an effective leader. Nonprofit leadership will soon be a-changin’.  Will you be ready?

Herbert C. Smith, Ph.D., is the founder and chairman of HC Smith Ltd., an executive search firm specializing in minority and female recruitment. The above is an edited excerpt of his speech “Overcome Diversity Fatigue by Leading People and Managing Change,” given on May 18, 2006, at the Association of Fundraising Professionals.