Why Discomfort is Good for Diversity

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After attending the recent 3% Conference, numerous messages, soundbites and rallying cries still keep playing in my head. There were many expert insights and audience questions (zingers, really) that made an impact. But one that affected me the most since I’ve lived it for much of the past two years is the action of being vulnerable and feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable. As the writer and 3% Conference emcee Luvvie Ajayi stated, “For change to happen, we need to sit in the discomfort.”

The theme of the conference this year was Beyond Gender, which focused on diversity in adland in all its facets, not just the “woman problem.” There was discussion about the hierarchy of diversity, while many struggle to move ahead, we are not moving as a group. Many segments of our population, especially people of color, are lingering behind. It was clear throughout the conference that we all need to work together for the “rising tide to lift all boats.” Every colleague and leader needs to share the responsibility of making our industry more diverse and inclusive of all people.

This is so true, especially for those of us who have been privileged enough to advance without the hindrance of the prejudice that many communities have experienced. But taking a hard look at this issue is not easy, which is where the discomfort comes in. Let’s face it: It’s hard to talk about diversity issues, let alone inspire action that changes behavior. I know this from experience. Almost two years ago at my agency I spearheaded the formation of an Inclusion Council, a staff-led team that works to nurture a supportive culture by hosting programs, events and activities that educate and shed light on different cultures, biases and other concerns that employees may face. The council was important because it brought the agency’s commitment more to the forefront, got more people involved and helped communicate our vision and core values. But after hearing so many reports about the persistent lack of diversity in our industry, I personally wanted to advance a culture where everyone felt heard and comfortable. An inclusive culture attracts more people from diverse backgrounds.

Let’s face it: It’s hard to talk about diversity issues, let alone inspire action that changes behavior. 

As a white, middle-aged woman in the Midwest, taking on the task of promoting and nurturing diversity and inclusion sounded great on paper, but once I started to put it into action, I got nervous. I felt like so ill-equipped most of the time, or a charlatan pretending to have a clue what I was doing. I was fearful of sounding ignorant or making mistakes or, worst of all, offending others. I knew I had little personal experience with the subject and certainly didn’t know anything about being a person of color, from a different race or of a different sexual orientation. I also knew that any discomfort I felt in no way compared to the detrimental effects of prejudice or racism. But I was passionate enough to keep going, to keep learning and to look toward trusted colleagues who knew I had positive intent. They guided me and many joined me. I know I’ll still never be an expert, but I’ve learned what it feels like to “sit in the discomfort” and be okay with it.

The 3% Conference reinforced that we can and should feel this way. Progress is often uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable writing this now, but if it helps one person choose to be uncomfortable, that’s progress too. As a leader, it may seem counterintuitive to be vulnerable to affect change or make progress. It sounds an awful lot like admitting failure and no one wants to fail. But being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be uncomfortable is when you can learn the most and make change happen. The author and research professor Brene Brown writes about this topic in her book Daring Greatly: “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.”

My company still has a ways to go, but we’re progressing and our Inclusion Council has made great strides in many ways that surprised me. More people are joining and participating in our activities and programs. It has helped evolve the way we recruit and we’ve invested in training sessions about relevant topics. We are also much more vocal as an organization about celebrating diversity in all its glory. And once we started, it got easier to do and easier to influence others. Brown also writes, “Vulnerability begets vulnerability; courage is contagious.” When a person, especially a leader, is willing to be vulnerable, the act of vulnerability is perceived as courageous and inspires others to follow suit.

So go let your guard down.