Why Conflict is Inherent in DEI Implementations

Dwight Cook and I have been in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (#DEI) space for a few decades now and have often experienced and been part of conflicts. These conflicts can arise from opposing view-points on #DEI perspectives, resistance to change or just misunderstandings. In this series of articles, we wish to share our learning on how to harness and leverage conflict as a means to foster inclusive cultures.

Part 1 - The nature of Conflict and why it’s inherent to human nature.

In our journey of enabling organizations to adopt Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) we often encounter conflict and resistance. Conflict is inevitable because we are asking people to change. If there is no visible conflict, it is likely passive resistance. Nevertheless, conflict can be difficult.

We often witness conflict between leaders and employees or managers and team-members or between different employee groups. How then can we use conflict to build shared understanding, improve trust, teamwork, innovation and solidarity to a shared purpose?

Conflict and resistance are a common human response to change. It challenges our normal ways of working and thinking. Helping people embrace change is crucial in ensuring that diversity, equity and inclusion values and purpose are embraced and sustained.

Some keys aspects to keep in mind during this shift are:

Mental models - conflicts often involve our mental models. An example would be when a new employee joins a team. The existing team has its set ways of working, and social norms. These are often established systems within a team. When a new employee joins, the expected behavior is that they accept the ways of working and the social systems of the existing team. But many times, this will not be the case. There could be conflict or resistance that’s both visible and invisible. The new employee could challenge the ‘group think’ or can decide to blend in without conflict to be accepted in the new workplace.

When organizations and teams create a work culture that challenges and resists the mental models of ‘group think’ they are able break free from conformity thus exploring new and untried solutions, question assumptions and existing beliefs and norms thus creating a space and culture for innovation, improved decision making and outcomes. Conflict involves challenging our mental models and the harder we resist, the more we fail to see unifying principles, values and goals that enable holistic change.

Passion - We experience conflict, when we face resistance to something we are passionate about. Our conditioning also influences our passions, it plays a profound role in shaping our perspectives, and behaviors. This conditioning comes from lived experiences, our life journeys, how we identify ourselves and what we care about. It shapes our emotional responses and influences our habits, decisions and world-views. This is what motivates us to grow but when we hold on too strongly to a specific perspective, it can often limit us. This conditioning results in unconscious biases.

A simple example would be the passion for safe and inclusive workplaces for women. It can drive us to make improvements in practices and policies but it can often blind us to understanding that men can also be victims of harassment.

Another example could be how early experiences shape our current behavior. If the culture in our schools/colleges focused on competitive, individualistic achievements versus collective learning and collaboration, then it’s highly likely that we will be conditioned to focus on individual success rather than team success. This trait may be exhibited in the workplace and hinder team cohesion and performance. Awareness of our competitive behavior allows us to choose to be more inclusive and collaborative.

When we run into conflict with others, it is helpful to appreciate our differing passions and mental models.

Respecting Differences - Acknowledging and appreciating the intent of individual passions and mental models empowers us to have conversations and introspections that often lead us to identify our shared purpose. It enables us to unify on common goals and values. By embracing diverse perspectives and experiences we can create a positive and inclusive work environment that promotes collaboration, innovation, and growth. This not only benefits individuals and teams but also contributes to the success of the organization.

As you go on your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion journey it’s important for us to recognise and respect the experiences and motivations behind conflict to build collective ownership.

About the authors -

Dwight Cook (Pronouns: He/Him/His) is the Founder of Leading With Pride, a leadership development program for minority professionals and activists. He is a Team Performance Professional with 25 years of experience in transforming organizations. Dwight is passionate about how Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion build business results. He has successfully transformed teams in 5 different companies in six different countries. He is also an experienced Industrial Engineer, Lean-Six Sigma Master Blackbelt, Scrum Master, and Product Owner, as well as LGBTQIA activists.

Tina Vinod (she/her) is the founder and Chief Consultant at Diversity Simplified. she assists workplaces and communities in implementing impactful DEI strategies, practices, programs, and communications. With 23+ years of experience, Tina's career spans executing DEI operations globally and in India, as well as driving Social Impact initiatives, CSR programs, Business Operations, Policy design, Marketing, Employer Branding, Employee Engagement, Experience and Training Programs, and POSH execution.

P.S – This blog was written for Linkedin and published on