This article was originally published on Forbes.com on November 30, 2017.
Between the Weinstein scandal, the tech industry’s continued struggles with diversity and the current U.S. political climate, the importance of leaders thinking deeply about the work environment they create has never been higher.
How your employees feel about their place in society, impacts how they feel about their place in your organization. In these times, your ability to navigate this intersection of identity and work will determine your success as a leader.
For our small organization, this is not a theoretical exercise. Our senior leadership team is fifty percent women. Our staff and leadership have shifted toward majority people of color. Our team members recently initiated our first LGBTQ group.
A focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, also known as DEI, has played a significant role in our evolution. As demographics and societal norms have shifted, we’ve adopted new practices and revisited traditional ones. Along the way, we’ve learned that maintaining the right balance across and within strategies is as critical as the strategies themselves.
Understanding the concept of balance is important, particularly in resource-constrained environments, because it can significantly increase the impact of your DEI practices with relatively little additional cost. There are three areas where imbalance often occurs and when resolved, will improve the effectiveness of your initiatives.
Distribute the emotional weight equitably
Studies indicate that under-represented groups benefit when a wide range of people understand their stories, particularly those with power who can advocate for them. As such, some organizations are bringing people together from across demographic lines to work on issues of DEI. In our experience this approach has been a great way to tackle a complex wide-reaching topic.
But the strategy does contain a flaw. In cross-demographic settings, people in positions of power or from the dominant culture are less likely to share when they have witnessed, or potentially contributed to, the disparities being discussed. Meanwhile, women, LGBTQ, and people of color consistently shoulder the burden of voicing their struggles and frustration.
That unbalanced distribution of the emotional work can cause skepticism among the under-represented about the outcomes. Our experience has taught us to set group norms that specifically address the discomfort and silence bound to occur. For example:
- If you aren’t uncomfortable, you aren’t growing.
- Say what no one else will say, even if you don’t say it well.
- Expect and accept that you may not always reach closure.
One-sided discussions happen because of the heightened risk of saying something wrong. It helps to develop norms that reframe this discomfort as a valuable and natural part of development. This is a practice that will continue to pay off as the work of DEI increases in complexity.
Despite best intentions, norms aren’t always quickly adopted. So, leadership needs to role-model what psychologists call “emotional response and personal vulnerability.” I’ve done this by acknowledging my struggles interviewing a candidate who was a non-native English speaker. I’ve discussed growing up in a male-dominated household and gender roles. I’ve had candid conversations about colorism and how it has shaped my life.
As a leader, exploring past decisions and sharing your missteps acknowledges the playing field isn’t always even. Continue having those conversations individually as well. You will say the wrong things, so stay open to feedback. Most importantly, commit to growing. Your actions will help bring the balance and trust needed to make DEI initiatives effective.
Don’t just recruit for diversity
A common reaction to the advice just provided is, “Our organization isn’t ready for that type openness.” My response is, “Fine. What’s stopping you from hiring people who are?”
Some of the most effective DEI initiatives are recruitment strategies focused on women and people of color. But recruitment strategies that only pursue under-represented groups are out of balance and will only get you halfway there.
An inclusive culture shouldn’t only play a role after talent enters your organization. The traits and beliefs that support the culture must be sought out in everyone — before they enter your organization. Several measures we’ve taken address this potential disequilibrium and are worth putting into action.
Our hiring processes go beyond diversity pipelines and targeted recruitment efforts. Every candidate we interview is assessed for their perspective on, and experience with, DEI. To do the same, add these questions to any interview you do:
- What is the most inclusive environment you’ve worked in?
- How do you define diversity?
- Provide an example of when you worked with someone very different than you.
Another proven DEI recruiting practice is leveraging interviewers who represent the diversity you seek. E.g., if you need women, then women should be interviewers. That practice should also be applied beyond traditional measures of diversity. E.g., when building an inclusive culture, have white male interviewers with an inclusive mindset assess the same in other white males.
Finally, set expectations about your culture in the same conversation as when you make the offer. We now make it clear to prospective hires that if they accept our offer, they are committing to our culture. Even if their beliefs aren’t deep-rooted yet, being explicit increases the odds of their behaviors aligning with our environment.
Know your Millennials
A prevailing belief about Millennials is they are more purpose-driven than previous generations. This can translate to their opinions on DEI carrying more weight and tilting the scales of decision-making. Case in point, a prominent firm recently shuttered their long-standing affinity groups in part because, “Millennials…don’t like demographic pigeonholes.”
Our organization has had an influx of Millennials and we’ve benefited from understanding how they think and work. I’ve also learned to pressure test assumptions about Millennials before building a DEI strategy disproportionately influenced by them.
The narrative about Millennials being purpose-driven is a good place to start. I recommend research by Jean Twenge, a study by the Council on Contemporary Families and the work of David Cotter. These studies present an alternate view and suggests millennials may be less egalitarian than previous generations, particularly around race and gender.
This is not meant to discredit millennials. It simply highlights that the research is inconclusive and shouldn’t drive your strategy. Research can inform you about Millennials as a group, but what matters most — are the particular Millennials you hired.
Research should drive questions you want to ask your teams to inform your strategy. To accomplish that, we turn to our organizational surveys. We ask general questions about work environment and we don’t shy away from asking our employees to assess specific areas, e.g.:
- I personally seek to understand other people’s identities and perspectives.
- Our organization has a culture that respects individuals and values their differences.
- We have productive conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Our organizational practices sufficiently support diversity, equity and inclusion.
If Millennials are part of your DEI equation, then ask survey participants to identify their generation in the surveys. Alternatively, if relevant, consider using tenure as a proxy. That allows you to analyze the data and see if their views are markedly different than others. Make sure to include multiple opportunities for open-ended comments. Research will give you direction, but the data and comments from your people will give you actions and strategies to pursue.
Finding the right balance of DEI initiatives will surely benefit your organizational performance. Beyond that, it will make your workforce know they are respected and valued. How your employees feel about their place in your organization, impacts how they feel about their place in society. In these times, that is a responsibility that will define you as a leader.