The Connection Between DEI and Engagement

the connection between dei and engagement

By Mitch Savoie Hill, CPC

Note: This article is based on Mitch’s TEDx Talk, “Which Box Do I Check?

ARE YOU STRUGGLING with employee, member, or client engagement?

Does it seem like everyone is? What does engagement have to do with DEI – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

What does any of this have to do with boxes?

Boxes. You know, we put people and ourselves in limiting boxes every day, or at least we try to. These boxes act as shortcuts to thinking or digging deep and getting to know the people around us, our teams, clients, etc., thus creating a spirit of separation and non-inclusion.

They say that people will have a solid impression of who you are within the first seven seconds of meeting. Seven Seconds!

But did you know that a more recent series of experiments by Princeton psychologists revealed that all it takes is a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger based on their face? A tenth of a second?!

So that means that you see my face, and within a tenth of a second, you have told yourself a story about me, about who I am.

As a leadership coach, I encourage my executive clients to be aware of how they show up, putting their best faces forward-their executive presence. I understand how image affects business. Hey, I don’t make the rules, but I will certainly help my clients succeed within those rules.

But what about the assumptions people make based on things you can’t control, such as your race, gender, body type, physical ability challenges, or where you are from?

My great-grandmother was black – Afro-Cuban. I inherited her curly hair and voluptuous hips. As a child, I was told those things were curses; my curly hair was referred to as “Pelo Malo” (bad hair).

When I was a teenager listening to rock music and watching MTV, the women celebrated in music videos were blonde with long feathery hair and skinny hips. Even the Telemundo soap opera stars looked like this. Women who looked like me were considered ugly. At least, that is the message that was constantly piped through the media and even from my family.

I felt ugly. I felt that my Afro-Cuban roots were considered inferior. Furthermore, I was not able to easily identify with any one thing – not Black, not totally White, not really Cuban, and apparently not American enough.

How many times in a day do you find yourself making snap judgments, putting someone in a box, and ignoring that there is a whole story to each person that you do not know unless you dig deeper?

Have you ever felt boxed in by some things you can’t control?

We all have at one point or another.

To this day, I hate filling out government paperwork where they ask, am I: Black, White, Hispanic, or, one added recently – White (Non-Hispanic)?

What if, like many first-generation Americans born of immigrant parents, I am all of those and none of those?

In life, this boxed mentality is the basis of teams not cooperating well, miscommunications, failed expectations, failed businesses, and in the worst-case scenario, war.

In business and leadership, understanding the stories behind the people you serve is the basis of successful teams and stellar service. We must understand our teams’ and clients’ needs, wants, and intricate backgrounds to provide an exceptional experience. That is how we stand apart.

But how? How do we ask deep and sometimes uncomfortable questions to get to know the person in front of us? What does this all have to do with DEI – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

DEI is a topic that is vital to anyone who wants to lead, encourage, inspire, and grow a team, organization, or client base. It is all about dissolving those pesky boxes or “boxed thinking.” Celebrating our differences, unique histories, perspectives, and backgrounds is important. However, it should be done in the spirit of increasing our understanding, emotional intelligence, and cultural intelligence, not for the sake of putting people in boxes.

How do we expand our limited views due to our conscious or unconscious biases (and we ALL have them)?

That is a great question and a great place to begin to dissolve our limiting boxes!

When I coach leaders and teams on engaging their clients and teammates, I first get them to understand the basics of genuine engagement – being present, connecting, and communicating. It is the only way to truly enter into a discussion and to have deep, if uncomfortable, conversations that lead to expanding our cultural and emotional intelligence.

Debate vs. Discussion

When I facilitate DEI roundtable discussions, I begin by clarifying the importance of being willing to have a beginner’s mind, curious like a child, ready to be vulnerable and to learn something new – to have a discussion, not a debate. A debate is Win/Lose, while a discussion is Win/Win.

How to Have an Uncomfortable Conversation:

Many of my clients ask, “But how do you have an uncomfortable conversation?”

Here is how:

  1. With grace
  2. With genuine interest and attention
  3. With the intention of learning something new
  4. With the use of open-ended, non-threatening questions
  5. With a childlike curiosity and wonder

It sometimes takes a lot of coaching, but it can be done successfully if you know those basic steps. If you are asking the right questions and focusing on the person in front of you, their experiences, likes, and dislikes, you will then start to truly understand that you cannot put anyone in a box and therefore stop offering “boxed” solutions or services.


One way we put someone in a box is by labeling or tokenizing them. It is another shortcut to doing the deeper, more profound work.

I once had a colleague ask me, “Well then, what is the best way to approach you to ask for the Latina’s perspective?”

To which I replied:

“Well, you can’t. You see, you won’t get the Latina’s perspective from me. You will only get Mitch’s perspective.

My perspective may or may not be similar to other first-generation Latinas like me, but I am ME, complete with my own unique experiences, education, adversities, likes, and dislikes. You cannot put a label on me and expect me to speak for a whole group. I can only speak for myself. If you want to see if there is a shared perspective, you can talk to many Latinas, watch movies directed by Latinas, and read some books authored by Latinas. Maybe then you will start to see the similarities. Most people don’t want to do that much work. It is easier to go for a quick answer.

The point is that there is no easy, quick-fix route to understanding the people around you, in your team, or on your client list.

You have to take the time and have those deep conversations – ask meaningful questions that will lead to greater understanding.

If you feel unclear, ask more questions-go deeper. The more questions you ask, the more you will learn. This understanding will lead you to develop great ideas and creative solutions.

During a spirited Game Night, I was conversing about this very subject with a group of diverse friends. One of them asked, “Why do we have to have all these specific labels anyway? Why can’t we just treat everyone with respect?”

I said, “Hey! That’s exactly what my TEDx Talk is about!”

To which he replied, apathetically, “It doesn’t matter. People just won’t learn. How do you even get them to listen?”

I looked at my good friend tenderly and said, “That’s a great question! The answer is by continuing to engage in conversations like this among diverse friends, family, and corporate settings.”

Perhaps I am an optimist. I am also a coach who has seen the positive effects of good coaching and deep, facilitated conversations. I know it is happening. Plenty of people are listening and are willing to learn. Many successful companies are inviting deep conversations through Employee Resource Groups or departmental “real talks.” They understand that a diverse group provides greater creative solutions. They also grasp that an inclusive environment fosters greater productivity, engagement, and loyalty.

If you are struggling with member, client, or team loyalty, find out where you need to increase engagement and inclusion. If you are not sure, ask – administer surveys, bring in a consultant to help you, dig deeper. Representation matters. Fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging will help people feel represented and valuable rather than stuck in a box.

The boxes will only dissolve when people can see beyond the labels and understand the bigger picture. Keep telling your stories. Keep educating those who are open to learning. Keep asking deep questions and expanding your cultural and emotional intelligence. The results will be invaluable!

Mitch Savoie Hill is a Certified Professional Coach, International TEDx Speaker, published author, and Corporate Trainer with over 25 years of hospitality and leadership experience. She started in the hospitality industry as a singing waitress in New York City when she was 18 years old and later went on to manage teams for international companies in the hospitality, real estate management, and construction industries. Mitch is a first-generation American, born to Cuban exiles, who survived a myriad of adventures and her fair share of discrimination and adversity. As the CEO and founder of SavHill Consulting LLC, she now dedicates herself to coaching individuals and teams on how to overcome their roadblocks to success and has authored an inspiring and instructional book on the subject. Learn more at www.savhillconsulting.com.

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