What Leaders Can Do to Inspire Diversity and Inclusion That Transforms Organizations

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  • December 20, 2018

Diversity and inclusion are terms that are often interchanged, but they actually have important distinctions. Diversity refers to the differences of employees on staff, such as race, gender identity, age, sexuality, and political orientation. Inclusion evaluates how safe and respected each employee feels and the unique experiences those employees can bring to their jobs and organizations

In tandem, the two concepts deliver a powerful approach to maximizing employees’ potential, assembling more creative teams, and transforming the organizational culture overall. And perhaps that’s why the terms are so commonly mixed up—both embrace differences as a driver of success, and not a deterrent, but evaluate efficacy differently.

However, there’s more to implementing diversity and inclusion practices than an organization declaring, “We are diverse,” or “We are inclusive.” The unfortunate truth is, many companies talk the talk but never come close to walking the walk. Employees of these organizations know when diversity and inclusion in the workplace aren’t core values—and they likely know what and who is preventing that from happening.

Companies that live and breathe diversity and inclusion in the workplace are primed to attract better talent, reduce employee turnover, increase innovation, boost morale and collaboration, and, perhaps most importantly, increase profits.

Here are some ways you can effectively strive for diversity and inclusion in your workplace:

Understand and Address Institutional Bias

Few organizations are willing to openly admit that their biases hamper diversity and inclusion in the workplace. However, even in a company “committed to diversity,” implicit bias can manifest itself in everything from hiring to promotions to operational decisions to everyday interactions. Managers and execs bring such bias, often unknowingly, to the office every day.

Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman, in their book Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences, write, “No one is off the hook when it comes to bias. We all have it and it shows up at some point. We don’t have to be victims of our unconscious bias. Most of us don’t want to be biased, so we need to learn to control the bias so that our rational, compassionate selves can make better decisions.” The authors admit confronting personal bias is not easy—no one wants to believe their judgment might be clouded by deep-seated preconceptions. Yet, challenging those implicit beliefs is necessary for real change to occur on an individual level. Acknowledging that everyone has biases lowers our defensiveness and ultimately allows us to confront where our biases came from.

Once people address bias individually, the effects of it can spread organizationally. In Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion, Jana and Ashley Diaz Mejias identify the many biases that, when unchecked, can grow into unmanageable discrimination. These include widely-discussed entrenchments, such as racial or gender bias, as well as more counterintuitive and lesser-known issues, such as occupational or retribution bias, otherwise known as punishment and aggression bias. The authors reinforce that any organizational change must start on a granular level: with you and others like you, committed to personally addressing the problem. They write, “We are all are part of the problem if we are participating in systems without questioning and leveraging our influence.” Fortunately, we can all be part of the solution.

Take Action

In Putting Our Differences to Work: The Fastest Way to Innovation, Leadership, and High Performance, Debbe Kennedy details a six-step process for putting people’s differences to work. The six steps are:

  1. Defining current realities: Assessing the state of your organizational culture gives you a starting point to figure out how to keep the organization and stakeholders focused on diversity and inclusion while also figuring out the best way to track progress. Action item: Examine your company’s stated values. Determine if they address diversity and how well they are being followed and embraced by the organization, and develop metrics and a plan that is a priority for everyone in the company.

  2. Developing support for change: Making diversity and inclusion core values of the organization builds a groundswell to make such initiatives work. Action item: Take an inventory of differences and invite employees to share their unique knowledge and experiences.

  3. Move forward: Take the courageous first steps toward transforming the organization. Action item: Learn to listen to and trust your teams so that committed employees can feel empowered to get involved.

  4. Establish shared ownership: Accountability is essential for diversity and inclusion because it sets expectations and demands results. Action item: Own the words and vision—keep yourself accountable for progress, but also encourage others to contribute their vision to the initiative.

  5. Measure progress and celebrate success: Making any progress toward reaching your diversity and inclusion goals is an achievement. Celebrating minor and major triumphs is not only a morale booster, but also an impetus for people involved to see the results of their efforts and want to do more. Action item: Express your gratitude and celebrate by acknowledging overall results and individual successes.

  6. Keep momentum alive: Cultivating a positive growth mindset recognizes diversity and inclusion are ongoing practice of listening, discussing, and building trust. It also acknowledges that organizations still have work to do—and that work is achievable with diligence and focus. Action item: Start a new conversation, looking at diversity from various angles and incorporating what might be contrasting workplace experiences. When more differences are introduced into the equation, there are more insights to be gained.

Kennedy’s book goes into greater detail with each of these steps, but the point is clear: Taking action on diversity and inclusion requires bold but feasible planning, listening, and creating space for conversations. Kennedy writes, “You’ll be surprised how you can influence fundamental change by simply removing a roadblock, changing a few attitudes, raising consciousness about conduct, increasing opportunities for conversation, and making people your personal priority in ways that they know it.”

Little Things Inspiring Big Results

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace may seem like a long-term initiative, but there are things you can do every day, starting immediately, to move your organization closer to being successfully different. Consider these actions:

  • Speak up: When you witness bias, whether implicit tendencies or explicit discrimination, don’t stay silent. Develop an organizational practice that addresses bias respectfully.

  • Expand conversations beyond work talk: Although some people perceive small talk and off-topic conversation in the workplace as wasteful, this communication creates understanding and interest in your peers’ lives that contributes to inclusion and, ultimately, strengthens results when discussions center on the task at hand.

  • Creative assignments: Mixing up teams or engaging unexpected people for ideas inspires fresh perspectives and can reveal surprising sources of innovation you can turn to in the future.

  • Question your own bias: As we’ve already noted, implicit bias is difficult to identify, much less admit, but to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace, you must set the example. Therefore, take a minute with key decisions to decide if your own assumptions are influencing your judgment.

As diversity and inclusion take hold, something amazing can happen: The concepts bloom at an increasingly rapid and engaging pace, and your workplace transforms before your eyes. But remember that this transformation starts with you. Kennedy writes in Putting Our Differences to Work, “Ideas create momentum. Someone else’s ideas work like springboards to the discovery of your own powerful ideas. All of us have witnessed this happen. A few suggestions to prompt thinking—and breakthrough!—a much better idea is born, custom-made for your organization and its people. This again proves no one knows better than you do about what is needed, even when it comes to putting differences to work. You just need the opportunity to reach inside to find your own answers.”

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