When does a company's DEI work stop being "performative"?

Lily Zheng, DEI strategist and consultantBy Lily Zheng (they/them)

For better or worse, the phrase "performative diversity" is one of the most scathing critiques that can be leveled at an organization's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts. Many corporate leaders I meet are eager to address the concerns—but are left frustrated as they try, and typically fail.

There are no industry benchmarks designating a point at which a company's DEI efforts become "performative."

For that matter, it's hard to even pin down what "performative" practices even encompass. Depending on who is offering the critique, performative DEI can refer to corporate communications, hiring practices, overall demographics, demographics of a specific position, community relations practices, HR processes, and more. Earnest leaders who try and address these challenges can feel engaged in a game of whack-a-mole, solving one challenge only for two more to crop up in its stead.

"When does our DEI work stop being 'performative'?" an exasperated leader asked me once.

The answer? "When people start trusting you."

"Performative DEI" is essentially a vote of no confidence from the accuser. More often than not, it reflects a consistent failure on the part of the organization to engage deeply and fully with the work.

  • A communications professional may have re-used a picture of the only person of color to inflate perceptions of racial diversity.
  • A hiring manager may have been caught complaining about "diversity hires," causing their colleagues from marginalized communities to feel insulted and demeaned.
  • DEI leadership positions may be experiencing high levels of turnover, contributing to frustrations within the organization that the position is only for show, not change.

These stories circulate among the workforce and continue to do so even if their root cause is addressed. Why? Stories have a specific power to them: they encourage employees to keep their guard up and their trust low, to protect themselves from harm, and to avoid having their hopes dashed from another failed initiative.

So what's a leader to do?

Focus less on jumping to action, and more on repairing broken relationships. It's slow work. It's often uncomfortable, sometimes grueling. But trust must be intact for discrete changes to resonate. The only solution to "performative diversity" is trust.

About the Author

Lily Zheng (they/them) is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategist and Consultant who works with organizations around the world to create high-impact and sustainable change. Lily leverages organizational design, strategy, and culture to find novel solutions to systemic inequalities and is the author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace and The Ethical Sellout. To learn more about Lily's consulting approach or to book them for a speaking opportunity, visit lilyzheng.co

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