This past year has caused tectonic cultural shifts. The same is certainly true within organizations. With the pandemic, many organizations have jumped feet first into remote working, flexible work schedules, and new ways of engaging their teams. At the same time, virtually every organization we’re aware of is seeking to respond to the calls for justice and equity across racial, gender, and sexual identity, both in the U.S. and globally.
This reckoning has profoundly impacted organizational thinking about culture – especially as it relates to how healthy organizational cultures can achieve optimal diversity, equity, and inclusion within the workplace.
Through our client collaborations, especially our work on culture diagnostics and development , we at Kenning have also been expanding our thinking. Below are some themes we’ve noted over the past year, and some related questions that have proved helpful for further consideration. Given our focus on development, we call out implications for how to approach DEI efforts as an opportunity to learn.
Strategy, accountability, and engagement
1. DEI strategy has a powerful connection to the broader organizational strategy. We have seen the value of connecting DEI into a fuller organizational strategy. Making connections between DEI and business strategy can unify an entire organization, even if there is not unanimous agreement about how to approach the specifics of DEI internally.
Questions to explore:
- How can we evolve our organization’s thinking by explicitly designing with a diverse and inclusive client and customer base?
- How can we create space for conversations about how to enhance that goal through internal alignment?
2. Momentum and empowerment go hand in hand with accountability across the entire team. As with any strategy, an organization’s approach to DEI needs engagement from top leadership. However, by definition DEI demands centering perspectives that have been previously marginalized. This means bringing an eye toward inclusivity of experiences and perspectives throughout the organization, well beyond those found in the C-suite or among leadership teams.
- How can empowerment be felt (and actualized) at multiple levels?
- Does the cohort we have working on DEI reflect the full organization and actively embrace the multitude of experiences and perspectives throughout the organization?
3. Engaging a diverse team for examining DEI efforts highlights the nuances of real consensus. If everyone at the table has a similar background or profile (whatever those may be), the full benefits of the DEI effort may not be realized. Eliciting the broadest possible set of perspectives and experiences can be challenging and uncomfortable in the short-term, but will prove rewarding in the long-term. In the short-term, there is often a desire to find consensus and alignment. However, a too easily won consensus can be a warning sign that team members don’t feel psychologically safe sharing dissenting opinions, experiences, and perspectives. This work can only advance as trust is built throughout the organization.
- What are we doing to ensure safety and the sharing of multiple candid perspectives at every level – and are we celebrating our colleagues when this occurs?
- How do we know that short-term momentum will lead to long-term traction?
Learning along the way
1. Tailored, meaningful learning and development efforts are part of what it takes to make impact in this realm, requiring flexibility and responsiveness. Corporate HR efforts, though laudable and useful, will tend to be more generic in order to appeal to the broadest possible organizational audience. DEI efforts, by contrast, typically need more customization to fit a team, department, or organization. The kind of learning and growth that is required at these levels is difficult to foster via a blanket approach.
- Are we allowing flexibility and providing support for team members to wrestle with what it means to meaningfully apply new approaches in their day-to-day life (not just their work) and bring their full authentic selves?
- Are we leaving space to iterate, learn, and redirect as we discover what resonates with our team?
2. There will be unfolding external and internal events; these can be learning opportunities.For efforts to feel grounded, they must be responsive to current events. These events range from consequential external events (e.g., the COVID pandemic, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor) to local external events in the community that may be especially present for members of your organization, through to internal events such as conversations that highlight internal tensions and dynamics. All such events offer an opportunity to reflect and learn.
- Are we making space for unfolding events to inform thinking, learning, and growth?
- Can we acknowledge and embrace unfolding events while recognizing the broader context within which they occur? How can we understand and respond to employee needs during these events?
3. Creating space for, modeling, and encouraging deep humility takes skill. Any learning in this area is best built on a foundation related to the capacity to listen to others and make space for their lived experiences. To that end, individual team members need to feel they have the skills and the support to practice deep humility, with a focus on being curious and reflecting out loud others’ unique experience. The ability to make space for others’ experiences and sensemaking can contribute profoundly to feelings of safety and build foundational trust in an organization and its leadership.
- Does our team have the interpersonal skills to show up as both curious and transparent? How good are we at listening?
- Do we know how to create psychologically safe spaces for people to be able to share their experiences without fear of judgment, bias, or other reactions?
4. There will be mistakes if you are really trying. Deeply reflecting on your culture with a consideration of opportunities to improve DEI is inherently messy. Deeper outcomes are not easy to frame as SMART goals. Progress won’t always feel like a straight line. If you’re learning and occasionally confused, you’re going the right way.
- Do we know how to make space for learning, reflecting, and experimenting with an eye toward engagement and learning?
- Can we cultivate a culture that extends grace and assumes good intent until proven otherwise?
Meaningful DEI efforts offer an opportunity for organizations to reflect and learn. We’ve posed here some questions to guide that learning process. In the spirit of learning with our clients and friends, we invite you to share your observations and experiences to advance our collective thinking in this important and urgent space. We’re curious about what you’re noticing and incorporating into your professional practices as the culture – global, national, and organizational – shifts in the direction of having an ever-greater appreciation of the value of DEI.