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Managing the Toll of DEI Work: The Physiology of Inclusion™

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Written by CultureCon Guest Bloggers and 2021 Keynote Speakers, Kevin Carter & GiGi Carter.

We are living in a time of significant polarization, due to factors such as rapidly changing demographics and immigration patterns, globalization of the marketplace, advancements in technology, and deviations from traditional societal norms of the past. The Physiology of Inclusion™ (POI) is a whole-body system to improve the physical, mental, and emotional health of DEI practitioners and leaders in order to enable them to lead inclusively.

The Physiology of Inclusion™ involves a two-part approach: First, what can you do to raise your resilience? Second, how can your organization assist and support you in this process? This approach avoids the pitfall that many institutions collude with—viewing resilience as solely individual behavior modification (something you should be able to learn once given the tools), while ignoring the conditions, policies, practices, and history that affect how we ultimately cope with stresses.

POI helps leaders to consciously merge technical skills with personal self-care skills to develop, retain, and project the fresh, vigorous, and resilient spirit that enhances patience, listening, empathy, and courage. These traits are essential for cultural competence and necessary to avoid negative impacts such as depression, cynicism, and burnout. It also arms practitioners with strategies and questions to challenge and raise the organization’s commitment to one’s well-being.

Resiliency, Curiosity, and Empathy

Executives, administrators, and managers face the difficult challenge of leading organizations and teams through economic uncertainty, increased competition, and growing polarization in society. The Physiology of Inclusion™ is focused on enhancing the following attributes:

  • Resiliency is our ability to recover quickly, or “bounce back” from difficulties in life. When leading DEI efforts, you may often be viewed as different than others, and be, or feel isolated. Helping those who experience discrimination, bias, and stereotyping can be emotionally, mentally, and spiritually taxing.

  • Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something. When leading DEI efforts, curiosity is essential because your mind will need to be open and observant of new ideas and possibilities. Curiosity can also foster creativity and enhance your memory of people, facts, and situations.

  • Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When leading DEI efforts, empathy is an essential skill to develop a real understanding across cultures. Your ability to understand the motivations, obstacles, opportunities, and hopes of other people will allow you to form relationships with people you perceive as culturally different than yourself.

The Physiology Connection

As DEI professionals or inclusion advocates, our physiology is tested in several ways.

Being socially rejected, experiencing stereotypes, and discrimination trigger the same neural circuits that process physical injury and translate it into the experience we call pain. As Elissa Dermendzhiyska details in her article, Rejection Kills,“the brain makes no distinction between a broken bone and an aching heart.” POI improves your resiliency so that you “bounce back” during these times. 

Second, as DEI professionals, we are the embodiment of change management, making visions, aspirations, and values tangible and measurable. We align diversity and inclusion theory to organizational strategies, objectives, and metrics. In Managing the Toll of DEI Work: Understanding Your Triggers, we discuss the exhaustion and the burden of facilitating this change management process and offer tips to assist you. POI improves curiosity so that you envision new possibilities and solutions. 

Third, research has shown that empathy can come at a price to your health and objective judgment. In terms of your health, neuroscience research on empathy shows that if you’re empathizing with a person who is in pain, anxious, or depressed, you will activate similar emotions. This means you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically. If you let these emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked. Unbridled empathy can lead to concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it challenging to release the emotions. Taking on other people’s feelings so that you live their experience can make you susceptible to feelings of depression or hopelessness. POI improves your capacity to empathize while helping you maintain the self-care needed to avoid burn-out, depression, and despair. 

The Physiology of Inclusion™ specifically focuses on six areas of action:

  • Sleeping: When you encounter workplace stress or experience discrimination, your sleep can be affected. Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on your body and mind in serval ways. You may overeat and gain weight, lose your ability to focus and think clearly, and fall into depression. 

  • Eating: Under stress, or duress, food choices may take a dangerous turn: eating a lot more or a lot less. You may also crave the short and dangerous rush of sugar or the damping effect of alcohol. This eating and drinking pattern will lessen your creativity and empathy, lead to chronic diseases and depression.

  • Exercising: You may feel isolated or excluded, as you are simultaneously required to “see a way out of no way,” and to empathize with the pain and hardship of others. Regular physical activity is not only associated with improving heart and brain health, including memory and mental clarity, but it can also build confidence.

  • Thinking: Research shows that having a self-compassionate and growth-oriented mindset lowers anxiety, depression, and stress and increases resiliency, creativity, and empathy. Shift your thinking from inner critic to inner ally through positive self-talk, meditation, and inspiring messages.

  • Being: Our identity as multicultural beings affects both our mental and physical health. Be loud and proud (not necessarily boastful and arrogant) about your culture, strengths, and gifts to foster confidence and energy, and position yourself to appreciate the gifts of others, and to collaborate successfully with others.

  • Interacting: Being with a diversity of people in a positive way makes a significant difference in your well-being, creativity, and resiliency. First, you are more likely to receive “constructive feedback” versus “groupthink.” Second, you have the safety and support to make mistakes and learn from them.

The Organization Plays a Vital Role

Essential to our methodology is that your organization plays a crucial role in raising your resiliency, curiosity, and empathy. Start by assessing all the resources available to you, such as health insurance wellness benefits, employee assistance programs, employee resource groups, etc. Write down one resource you want to use more fully. Ask questions of your organization like: 

  1. How does my organization acknowledge the connection of culture and resilience and foster cultural knowledge and pride for all employees?

  2. What are the organization’s tangible goals and commitments to acknowledge and act upon the social and environmental factors that generate stress, and an employee’s ability to manage emotional fatigue?

  3. Does my manager or organization expect a 24/7 lifestyle?

  4. Does my organization value physical activity to manage stress and improve my health?

  5. Does the food served at meetings, and in the cafeteria have several healthy, nutrient-dense options?

To be successful catalysts for change, it is imperative that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) methodologies adapt and evolve. We have learned that cultural competency, knowledge and technical skills are not enough. We have also learned that placing the responsibility on the individual, without acknowledging and addressing the organizational culture and system that foster DEI fatigue, will not work.


About the authors:

Kevin Carter is a principal strategist for The Winters Group, Inc. His specialty is diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) strategy development, knowledge transfer, and coaching. He helps companies address Diversity & Inclusion challenges and opportunities such as changing demographics, attracting and retaining top talent, next-generation leadership development, and workplace collaboration. He focuses on delivering relevant knowledge, customized strategies, and measurable results.

Kevin holds a BA, Cum Laude in Philosophy and Public Affairs from Vanderbilt University and an MBA in Finance from the Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management. He was one of Diversity MBA Magazine’s Top 100 Executives Under 50 and Crain’s Cleveland 40 under 40 Club. He has received fellowships from the German Marshall Memorial Fund and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and is a recipient of the NBMBAA H. Naylor Fitzhugh Award of Excellence.

Gigi Carter is the founder of My True Self, PLLC, a socially conscious nutrition and wellness practice. She is a licensed nutritionist through Washington State’s Department of Health and certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.  Gigi works with both individual and business clients to restore health and improve the quality of life by lowering the personal and financial costs associated with lifestyle-related chronic diseases. Also, Gigi is the author of The Plant-Based Workplace and co-author of the children’s book, The Spinach in My Teeth.

Gigi holds a BS in economics from John Carroll University, an MBA from Cleveland State University, and an MS in Nutrition Sciences from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In her free time, Gigi is board president and team manager of the all-women's bike racing team, Nunchuck Bunnies. In addition, she is a board member of Woman in the Woods Productions, a non-profit that promotes an appreciation and understanding of racial and cultural differences through various forms of artistic expression.   


See Kevin & GiGi Carter in action at the CultureCon 2020 Virtual Summit!

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