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Summary: DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right by Lily Zheng

We all want to feel welcome, heard, and accepted as our authentic selves. And we want the same for our teammates, colleagues, and family. So how can we turn these good intentions into measurable solutions?

This book summary, DEI Deconstructed by Lily Zheng, explores this question. In her comprehensive and candid text, Zheng–one of the DEI field’s most respected and popular strategists–unpacks the booming multibillion-dollar Diversity, Equity & Inclusion industry, identifying where it is succeeding and where it is falling short.


In a comprehensive and candid text, one of the DEI field’s most respected and popular strategists, Lily Zheng, unpacks the booming multibillion-dollar industry. The author claims DEI initiatives largely deliver feel-good talking points but few measurable solutions. Zheng meticulously “deconstructs” the meaning of DEI, then redefines it broadly to increase multistakeholder buy-in and reduce backlash. They consider data, measurement and hard outcomes the only real proof of impact. This foundational tome delves deeply into strategies that can help turn good intentions into tangible results.


  • The DEI industry has largely failed to deliver.
  • Measurable progress matters more than good intentions.
  • Invite widespread buy-in to your DEI initiatives to mitigate backlash.
  • Move beyond “performative” DEI.
  • Trust constitutes the foundation of change.
  • Leverage six types of power wisely to improve DEI outcomes.
  • Honor everyone’s identity and scrap divisive labels.
  • Build coalitions of people working across seven interdependent roles.
  • Move your organization through four stages of DEI maturity.

Book Summary: DEI Deconstructed - Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right


The DEI industry has largely failed to deliver.

Decades of efforts by Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consultants and trainers, and billions of dollars spent each year, have resulted in some feel-good vibes and increased awareness, but few measurable results or proven business impacts – at least not in proportion to the money spent. Even the basic aims of DEI – equal racial and gender representation throughout the corporate ranks – have failed significantly. And in some cases, DEI training aimed at exposing unconscious bias and racism has led to polarized feelings and worsened outcomes.

“As societies, we still face the same enormous challenges we faced in 2019 and have faced for decades and centuries.”

Even movements with many positive elements, such as #MeToo, which increased reporting of sexual harassment and assault, have created intense divisions. Three-quarters of men polled do not believe the movement has had a net positive impact, and 60% of male managers now express reluctance to mentor, work alone or socialize with female colleagues for fear of negative perceptions.

Many of the fundamental tenets of DEI are now being questioned as frustration grows over the lack of progress. Some have begun to view the billion-dollar industry as a “DEI industrial complex,” where money is made yet the status quo remains unchanged. Effective DEI work requires balancing optimistic aspirations for the future with a commitment to taking responsibility for immediate, measurable outcomes.

Measurable progress matters more than good intentions.

Aspirations alone are too vague for proper interpretation and execution. The demographic and structural realities of an organization reflect whether real DEI progress has been made. Leaders will need to devise strategies that simultaneously break down historical inequities, provide for individuals’ unique needs and address stakeholder trust.

The concept of diversity as simply “variety” of identity proves far too narrow. Diversity truly occurs when an organization creates a representative workforce that is widely perceived as accountable and trustworthy, especially by marginalized populations.

Equity consists of a fair and just assessment of success and well-being for all stakeholders, without discrimination, mistreatment or abuse. Equity can be attained only by removing structural obstacles to its fulfillment.

Inclusion often proves the most difficult of the three aspects of DEI to achieve, as it demands the creation of a respectful and accountable environment, trusted by all stakeholders, particularly vulnerable groups. This is accomplished through measures that counteract inequities.

True DEI demands organizational accountability through actions that address current and historical inequities and accommodate the unique needs of diverse individuals, groups and organizations.

“Any strategy for achieving inclusion is valid if it results in the outcome of stakeholders trusting that an environment is respectful and accountable.”

Five key questions can guide DEI work:

  1. Does everyone know and agree with what the DEI work aims to achieve?
  2. What will the DEI work do for all stakeholders, including employees, customers and the environment?
  3. What role will the firm’s most powerful people play?
  4. Does everyone share common beliefs about how to approach identity and difference?
  5. And, what does success look like?

Invite widespread buy-in to your DEI initiatives to mitigate backlash.

In the 1970s, the US military’s Defense Race Relations Institute undertook a mammoth campaign to train internal race relations instructors, who then spread out across military units to deliver racial-awareness training. The program provided months of instruction and produced well-informed trainers, yet failed to achieve its goals and even exacerbated some of the problems it sought to resolve.

Why? Its planners hadn’t anticipated the intensity of participants’ resistance and resentment and the backlash that ensued. Some DEI programs of the 1970s and 80s did work, but they were also met with significant opposition. Affirmative action programs led to real gains in workplace representation for underrepresented groups. However, the narrative of “reverse discrimination” ultimately led to the unraveling of many programs.

In the late 1980s, the DEI industry reinvented itself by arguing the business case for diversity. This largely ineffective angle was nevertheless widely adopted by the corporate world; it aimed to fill the void left by dismantled government regulations and affirmative action programs.

“What we now call the ‘DEI industry’ is precisely the result of decades’ worth of push and pull between the forces of accountability and avoidance, morals and profits, transparency and opacity, and hope and cynicism.”

Despite its history of failure over decades, DEI initiatives can work by holding practitioners and organizations accountable for collecting data and attaching outcomes to business objectives – namely, measurable improvements in DEI results. Practitioners must also avoid repeating mistakes of the past, such as using the Implicit Association Test to “show” white people they harbor unconscious racism. Instead, interventions that protect individuals’ self-image, such as helping people gain perspective and making inclusion a social norm, can help reduce backlash. Complex, thoughtful initiatives can create lasting positive change and impact, where simplistic solutions failed.

Move beyond “performative” DEI.

To create real change and progress in DEI, organizations must prioritize outcomes that make a substantive difference, such as improving people’s health, well-being and success, while reducing discrimination for all stakeholders, including employees, contractors, communities and the environment. Beware “performative” DEI, that is, actions that lack authenticity and appear insincere. Performative allyship, for example, might occur when a person wears a “Black Lives Matter” pin but doesn’t take substantive actions, or wears a rainbow T-shirt during Pride month but fails to speak up when a colleague makes a homophobic slur.

Whether an action is considered performative or not depends in part on the level of trust stakeholders have in the person or organization behind the action. But trust in organizations has decreased over time due to a lack of accountability and a history of unfulfilled pledges and commitments, including those that fall under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) banner. This has led to skepticism and cynicism towards corporate DEI efforts that lack tangible outcomes.

“Modern CSR has…morphed from a tool to make change into a tool used to sustain and obscure the status quo.”

For DEI to truly succeed, organizations must understand the role trust plays in inspiring workforce participation, fostering communication and engaging stakeholders. Trust levels are shaped by an organization’s history of handling conflict, controversy and harm. Assess it formally by surveying stakeholders’ confidence in an organization’s willingness and ability to achieve equity, or informally by observing the proportion of the workforce that express skepticism or cynicism.

Trust constitutes the foundation of change.

DEI in high-trust environments can follow a straightforward path. In a high-trust environment, approach DEI change in cycles: First, prepare and assess the current situation; then implement your strategy. Employ storytelling and careful experimentation. Make progress through iterations. Celebrate success, and repeat the cycle.

“Achieving DEI requires that you understand your organization inside and out, that you accurately conceptualize the arc of change-making with the level of trust you’re working with, and that you solve the right problems.”

In medium-trust environments, maintain current levels of trust while pursuing change. Here leaders must strike a balance between the linear DEI road map applied to high-trust environments with ongoing efforts to increase trust. Do this by aligning leaders’ success with DEI success. Form DEI councils of accountability, empower stakeholders and take a scalable approach as trust grows.

In low-trust environments, rebuilt confidence to become medium-trust environments, whether through DEI or other organizational changes. Accelerate trust-building through power-sharing and actively involving disadvantaged stakeholders.

Leverage six types of power wisely to improve DEI outcomes.

Power resides in systems and in each employee, not just senior leaders and executives. The ability to influence individuals and outcomes constitutes power. Employees and executives exercise six forms of power.

  1. Formal power is derived from your position of authority.
  2. Reward power comes from your influence over employee compensation, bonuses, raises and other incentive programs.
  3. Coercive power gives you authority to punish people.
  4. Expert power is based on the knowledge and expertise you bring to the organization.
  5. Informational power is obtained from what you know about what is going on in your company and related environments.
  6. Referent power is based on your social skills and ability to influence others.

“We cannot ignore power – because if we do not choose to act on power, power will always act and be exercised on us in some shape and form.”

To contribute to positive DEI outcomes, use these types of power wisely, with an understanding of your organization’s structure, culture and strategy.

Honor everyone’s identity and scrap divisive labels.

Leaders must acknowledge the significance of identity in shaping the lives of individuals, especially marginalized populations. People’s identity –including their race, gender, sexuality, religion, age, nationality and class – has a profound impact on their decisions and behavior. Ignoring these impacts often causes harm. Some DEI practitioners present socially privileged identities in a negative light. But this can lead to defensiveness and backlash from powerful people, whose participation is critical to DEI success.

“We should scrap [divisive] labels because there’s no compelling or consistent way to define them, their pursuit and avoidance tend to drive unhelpful behaviors, and they don’t do us good at scale.”

To overcome these challenges, leaders should adopt a responsible, positive and accountable approach to inclusive behavior. Link umbrella practices to personal and professional responsibility and workplace systems. View all social identities as value-neutral or positive. Identity should be treated as a language in which leaders can gain proficiency. By approaching identity as part of a larger DEI toolbox, leaders can better engage stakeholders.

Build coalitions of people working across seven interdependent roles.

Successful DEI demands systemic, cultural change that proves impossible without a massive, concerted effort carried out by workers at all levels engaged in seven key roles. Each part proves essential to movement success. ​​​​​​

  1. Advocates initiate discussions on sensitive issues and bring energy to change initiatives.
  2. Educators use information to empower stakeholders to make change.
  3. Organizers bring groups together to achieve their goals.
  4. Strategists provide a comprehensive view and facilitate decision-making.
  5. Backers offer resources, support and legitimacy to movements.
  6. Builders create new policies, processes and practices.
  7. Reformers improve existing capacities and use of resources.

“Movements fail when they fail to activate even one of the roles.”

A person’s formal role in an organization can guide their involvement in DEI change. Individual contributors should act as advocates and organizers, managers as backers and short-term builders, while senior leaders serve as backers, strategists, advocates and reformers. DEI professionals and groups prove most effective as educators, builders and reformers.

DEI movements are best organized through coalitions. The interdependence of DEI roles requires that movements engage with many people and create coalitions of individuals who may not agree on every aspect of the movement but support its core goals. These informal coalitions may not be perfect, but they can be highly effective when united around a common purpose.

Move your organization through four stages of DEI maturity.

DEI organizational maturity progresses through four stages.

Level 1 – Build trust before attempting to achieve any large-scale DEI outcomes.

Level 2 – Work to secure resources and a commitment from leadership; this boosts trust and establishes the foundation for future DEI initiatives.

Level 3 – Collect extensive data through surveys, focus groups and employee feedback.

Level 4 – Garner the dedication, political support, trust and momentum needed to carry out actions that provide long-term DEI benefits. Success at this stage helps generate more trust and momentum.

About the Author

Lily Zheng is a leading DEI strategist and consultant who helps leaders translate their good intentions into tangible results. They are recognized as a Forbes D&I Trailblazer and LinkedIn Top Voice in Racial Equity. Zheng’s work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, The New York Times and NPR.



DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right, written by Lily Zheng, is a comprehensive guidebook that delves into the complex and critical field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). The book offers a fresh perspective, actionable insights, and practical advice for individuals and organizations looking to create more inclusive environments and dismantle systemic biases.


In DEI Deconstructed, Lily Zheng provides readers with a thorough exploration of the key concepts, challenges, and strategies related to DEI. The book is divided into well-structured chapters, each focusing on a specific aspect of DEI, making it easy to navigate and digest the information. Zheng combines personal experiences, research, and case studies to illustrate the real-world impact of DEI practices and offers tangible steps for implementing change.

Key Themes and Insights

  • Understanding the Foundations of DEI: The book starts by defining and contextualizing key terms such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, helping readers grasp the foundational concepts necessary to engage in meaningful conversations and actions.
  • Unpacking Privilege and Bias: Zheng explores the role of privilege and bias in perpetuating inequality, encouraging readers to confront their own biases and privileges to foster genuine inclusivity.
  • Intersectionality and Identity: The author highlights the importance of recognizing and embracing intersectionality, the interconnectedness of different aspects of an individual’s identity, to ensure inclusivity that goes beyond surface-level diversity.
  • Building Inclusive Spaces: Zheng provides practical strategies for creating inclusive environments, including fostering psychological safety, implementing unbiased hiring practices, and promoting diversity in leadership roles.
  • Addressing Systemic Inequities: The book dives into systemic issues and offers guidance on advocating for structural change, challenging discriminatory policies, and fostering equity in organizations and society.
  • Allyship and Advocacy: Zheng emphasizes the significance of allyship and offers guidance on how individuals can actively support marginalized communities and amplify their voices.
  • Sustaining DEI Efforts: The author discusses the importance of ongoing commitment and accountability in sustaining DEI efforts, providing insights into measuring progress and adapting strategies as needed.

Review and Evaluation

DEI Deconstructed stands out as an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of DEI and actively contribute to positive change. The book is well-researched, comprehensive, and accessible, making it suitable for both beginners and those already familiar with DEI concepts. Zheng’s writing style is engaging and relatable, ensuring that readers stay connected throughout the book.

The author’s personal anecdotes and case studies add depth and authenticity to the content, making it easy to relate to real-world situations. Additionally, the practical tips, discussion questions, and reflection exercises provided at the end of each chapter encourage readers to apply the knowledge gained and engage in self-reflection.

DEI Deconstructed does an excellent job of balancing theory with practicality, providing readers with clear action steps to implement DEI practices in their personal and professional lives. The book empowers individuals to challenge the status quo, dismantle systemic biases, and contribute to creating a more equitable and inclusive society.

Overall, DEI Deconstructed is a must-read for anyone interested in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion. Lily Zheng’s expertise, insights, and passion shine through, making this book an invaluable resource for individuals, organizations, and communities striving for positive change.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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