Matthew J. Yazzie has spent nearly twenty years working on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) experience in tech. For corporations of all sizes, he’s focused on bringing organizational communities closer together. As an indigenous rights advocate and organizational and behavioral scientist, Matthew works through difficult conversations connected to workplace trauma, discrimination and harassment.
On the recent Perspectives in Leadership podcast episode, I sat down with Matthew to discuss how organizations can drive healthy and purposeful DEI conversations, the importance of employee resource groups (ERG), inclusivity of product design and much more.
Listen to Matthew's episode of the Perspectives in Leadership podcast
What follows is a short snippet of our expansive discussion. Be sure to subscribe to Pluralsight’s Perspectives in Leadership wherever you listen to podcasts so you don’t miss the newest episodes.
*Answers have been edited for length and clarity*
What is the process of creating a code of conduct and diversity and inclusivity training for a company that spans the whole globe in every sense of the word, be it geographically, culturally or economically?
When we're talking about global organizations in particular, we still see it through the lens and the viewpoint of our own experience and location. Google was based in California before it ended up growing to this large behemoth. And so, as a result of that, the values and how it expanded oftentimes hinged on how we defined what success and what the values were for a company that had its roots in Silicon Valley.
That tends to be the experience for most large-scale companies. And so that was one of the bigger challenges: How do we operate in other countries and regions? How do we talk to other individuals about what our values are concerning fairness, engaging with customers and what success looks like around employee development? How do those translate into what it looks like for another region? Those were the most difficult conversations to have because oftentimes different locations are treated as an international office and not as a part of the company as a whole.
There's this push and pull that ends up happening where you're having to reconcile very quickly. How do you discuss our values in a way that doesn't make an individual feel hesitant or scared about their job and, more importantly, their identity?
Do you think there are things that need to happen differently depending on the size of the company? Or do you think that there are certain types of values and plans of action that companies of all sizes can take to make sure that they are getting diverse thoughts from people of all walks of life? Or do you think there can be uniformity in the plans?
This is a really great question! Human beings will never have the same definition of what diversity, equality, equity and belonging mean. We need to own the fact that those concepts are so unique and ingrained in a person's lived experience. And those lived experiences vastly differ. So you have twin children growing up in the same household, given the same resources and have completely different definitions of what any of these concepts mean. That's one of the things I think we need to start embracing more as a community.
Does that mean we can't have some understanding of what the concepts are in helping to engage in this conversation? Of course not! We actually can have a better conversation because we're coming at it with the fact that these lived experiences lend themselves so much into how we think about that conversation and how we're addressing these issues.
What I try to get organizations to do is define the goals and intent of their diversity, equity and inclusion conversations. Oftentimes, it's making sure employees don't feel harmed when they come into work. Perhaps it’s wanting to see other individuals who've been systematically marginalized within their workplaces. And they want to see a bit more balance when it comes to those racial qualifiers. It really comes down to, like, what's the ultimate end goal of what you're trying to accomplish.
Without a goal or a purpose of why you're entering into these conversations, it's very difficult to understand why you’re investing in having these conversations. So the short answer is, the planning for this work can be similar for companies of all sizes. It starts with the why.
I'm interested if you have thoughts on what DEI looks like in the actual UI/UX of website structure and the development of products and brands. If you don't have diversity of voice in the company culture, then it can be very easy to silo teams. This siloing of the way that you see the world can, by extension, silo the way that you produce products.
We have teams called product inclusion teams whose job is basically to look at Google or Facebook's products and services and say, “This is where it fails to be inclusive for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. Blind and visually-impaired individuals can't have access to this.” Certain applications are supposed to be, by law, accessible, but oftentimes people just develop them without thinking through that. And so I have a difficult time with this concept because you didn't invest in having engineers who are very highly-qualified that also happen to be deaf or hard-of-hearing and deal with these accessibility issues.
Colorblindness isn’t tested in design as much as it should be because most colorblind people are men who, on balance, don't disclose that about themselves because it can cause them to be excluded in certain projects.
Because we don't have these individuals working on the products themselves as individuals who are creating the products and given the power and authority to dictate and manage how that product evolves, what’s happening is majority group members have created products and services, and then product inclusion groups get created to backtrack on the gap between the lived experiences of those engineers and the underrepresented and marginalized. That's not product inclusion's job to have to fix and correct something that happened as a result of a company fundamentally not investing in individuals who had the lived experiences to address these issues up front.
What types of questions should leaders be asking to see if there are things that they can do to mitigate preventable issues?
A majority of my work comes from working with white cisgendered executives. And oftentimes that's where the largest gap is. The majority gap is in terms of where leadership sits within an organization. I work best with these groups because, on balance, they're wanting to do the right thing. They had no control over their initial upbringing and little control over their early life exposures to other viewpoints and I have sympathy towards that.
I work to explain to them that not knowing something doesn't make you a bad person. And for some reason, culturally, we've embraced this notion that because you're wrong or you didn't know something that you are inherently morally bad. For individuals to really embrace there's a guilt that people will feel when something's brought up to them is healthy and a great starting point.
It really is fundamentally about taking an assessment of what your organization looks like, and then trying to understand where you'd like your organization to be. As an example, this is a very honest answer here, but one of the toughest things I experience is getting an executive to say out loud the phrase, “We need to hire more black employees.” That phrase can be hard for a straight, white, cisgendered executive to say, because there's a lot of heaviness around what that means, but it also can feel like a bit of tokenization.
But when we're talking about the root of the problem and trying to clearly identify the goals and the outcomes without saying that phrase, you're not setting clear intent for individuals to get behind. The chasms are getting wider in this conversation around DEI because of the ambiguity and also the shame that we're making individuals feel when they are in their learning process.
We don't shame children for getting things wrong and trying, but, for some reason, we found it acceptable to shame people who are earnestly trying to engage in this dialogue.
5 keys to successful organizational design
How do you create an organization that is nimble, flexible and takes a fresh view of team structure? These are the keys to creating and maintaining a successful business that will last the test of time.Read more
8 ways to stand out in your stand-up meetings
Whether you call them stand-ups, scrums, or morning circles, here's some secrets to standing out and helping everyone get the most out of them.Read more
Technology in 2025: Prepare your workforce
The key to surviving this new industrial revolution is leading it. That requires two key elements of agile businesses: awareness of disruptive technology and a plan to develop talent that can make the most of it.Read more