Culture is an area that is not viewed or valued when companies are experiencing downturn. Often Culture is confused with ways of working. It’s also something that is often viewed as a very intangible, non-quantifiable and only dealt with within the HR area of the organization. Culture is based on individual and the organization’s values. The value-driven cultural alignment of an organization is fundamental to examine, especially in times of distress because it is often where we find the highest potential solutions to re-ignite the business in correlation with other business indicators.
In my hands-on experience of successfully turning around several companies, from start-ups to medium size and large both private and public companies, the effective and proven methodology that I used was: Inclusive Transformation.
The need for inclusion came from my first-hand experiences as an Iranian-born, French-raised and educated immigrant who became an American citizen right after 9/11. I got the amazing opportunity to successfully climb the corporate ladder and thrive through the tough world of C-Suite executive leadership, thanks to my differences and not despite them. .
BY: MONA AMELI, NATIONALLY CERTIFIED DIVERSITY & INCLUSION AND CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION CONSULTANT
These past months’ protests and movements all over the country, and globally, following the brutal and senseless killings of George Floyd and many other Black Americans have brought into greater light the challenges of systematic racism in America. These also reflect the critical need to not only understand why, but also how the often uncomfortable and tough conversations of race and inclusive diversity are and will be impacting both individual companies as well as industries as a whole. It is essential for each of us to be able to play an active and positive role in the new breakthroughs and real changes that are now possible.
Some companies sent heartfelt corporate messages of their solidarity with their customers Black communities through social media and direct communications, including various size donations to Black supporting non-profits. While these gestures of true compassion and courage have been appreciated, but few organizations have really voiced and crafted their companies strategic and tactical plans and commitment to the Black communities’ as well as the wider underrepresented communities’ inclusion.
To create solutions and actions towards a more inclusive industry, we first need to understand some key notions. First, let us address some key definitions around the often misused and misunderstood concepts of diversity and inclusion. While very distinct, their optimal combination within an intentionally created culture and under an authentic inclusive leadership is and will be the only sustainable solution. Then to understand how best to address the most important roadblocks to full inclusion, we will expand on one of the key areas of challenges in creating inclusion which is how to identify and effectively tackle the deeply rooted issue of Unconscious Bias.
I- Diversity Cannot Exist Without Inclusion Too many companies make the wrong assumption that diversity and inclusion are synonymous and/or that one automatically implies the other. Diversity and Inclusion, while often referred to as D&I, are two very different concepts. Diversity is defined as the representation of many aspects of human differences. Beyond the 2 most referred-to visible traits being race & gender, diversity includes other traits such as: age, ethnic background, and disability as well as invisible traits such as: sexual orientation,socio-economic status & background, education, …. So, workplace diversity is having a workplace that represents different types of people and backgrounds. Inclusion refers to the feeling of belonging in an environment that fosters a culture where employees feel valued, respected, accepted as they are, and treated fairly while encouraged and motivated to fully participate and speak up. An inclusive workplace provides the space, processes, tools, and platforms that empower everyone to bring their “full selves” to work and to be all fully included and valued; not just some. An analogy that is often used to distinguish these 2 concepts is: Diversity speaks to who is “on the team”, but inclusion focuses on who is really “in the game”* (from: “Diversity doesn’t stick without Inclusion” Harvard Business Review Article, 2017) So, while many companies feel that they have reached increased levels of diversity in their workforce or in their Field, they naively feel that they have now an inclusive culture. There are unfortunately two real dangers and negative boomerang effects that these misguided (and sometimes dangerous) assumptions can have:
1. Without inclusion, the key dynamics that initially would attract diverse talents into the organization, inspire and encourage full participation that lead to innovation and business growth won’t happen. Very often this creates the painful sentiments of exclusion, frustration, and highlights the unfairness of many practices of the company that in turn lead to the departure of some of the most valuable assets for the organization. Just as a reference point, companies with above-average diversity produced a greater proportion of revenue from innovation (45% of total) than from companies with below average diversity (26%). This 19% innovation-related advantage translated into overall better financial performance. * (from: Forbes, Jan 2020).
2. The other much more difficult and uncomfortable truth about having diversity without inclusion is “tokenism” which can impact the most well-intentioned companies. This phenomenon represents situations when employees from the diverse pool of underrepresented communities are hired or promoted into senior leadership positions (or within departments and areas that did not have any diversity). Once there, they realize that they may now be on “the team” – they have attained from a title perspective a position of leadership - but they are not “in the game”- they are not included in key strategic decision makings, can’t express themselves authentically, and/or their role & influence isn’t at all at the same level as their non-diverse counterparts-. Feeling like an outsider and lacking a sense of psychological safety & comfort due to the absence of an environment that doesn’t foster a true sense of authentic belonging, these often highly talented individuals leave the organization,sometimes in an abrupt manner, with extreme disappointment and frustration about having been used as “tokens”. This also casts a negative image on the company as the relatedness and aspiration of other diverse employees to one day getting promoted to a leadership role gets shattered by seeing the realities of what life at the top can feel for those who are “different”.
In a nutshell, many companies mistakenly take a short-sighted approach to settle for “checking the box” for diversity without making the significant and genuine commitment to achieving true inclusion. This can change through the shift of both their personal leadership style and the organization’s culture to becoming an authentic Inclusive Leader and creating a truly integrated and systematic Inclusive culture across the entire organization. Inclusion is an ongoing process not a sprint, a band-aid nor a quick fix.
As a company, having diversity as a value isn’t enough. Creating a culture with inclusive brands & product lines, integrated processes, and holistic materials & trainings that can provide everyone equally access to its benefits and usages is what matters. As such, we have seen that having diverse AND inclusive leadership at the Corporate C-Suite level of organizations helps enormously in achieving this objective more effectively and in a more sustainable manner. A key question I often ask Corporate leaders is: does your current executive leadership reflect your customer base diversity representation? If the answer is no, then are you truly committed to shifting it?
To have a true and authentic inclusive culture, one of the other key areas to address is our thoughts and stereotypes that impact our individual and/or organizational behaviors which can then undermine the sustainability of inclusive diversity: our Unconscious Biases.
II- Addressing Unconscious Bias
If you had not heard the term before, I am certain you have now as it has been a central theme in all the recent conversations around race and inclusion. Often perceived as a negative action taken deliberately, unconscious or implicit biases are actually cognitive automatic shortcuts, often based on primitive, mistaken, outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete information deeply rooted in our cultural, environmental and family upbringing and past. These affect our attitudes and thoughts without us realizing it. As human beings, we are all biased, but some of these biases can be harmful as they can have a significant impact on workplaces, shaping many core decisions such as: hiring, recruiting, promotions, affiliation, marketing, branding,… . Some of the most hurtful examples are: “women are too kind, caring and emotional to become leaders”, “hiring from top-tier universities brings in the best and most productive talent”, “John Johnson is a better and a more high potential candidate to hire/ to promote for this high-visibility position than Jamil Johnson”, “Let’s add a Latina-looking woman with 4 kids to this marketing brochure so we show we have diversity”,…
Though bias is often unconscious, it does not prevent us from taking full responsibility and proactively educating ourselves about their origin. The first step is to acknowledge them and create awareness around them. There are many types of unconscious bias in the workplace, but the 2 most observed are Affinity Bias or like-likes-like ( tendency to gravitate toward and give preferential treatment to and Halo/Horn Effect (a type of cognitive bias that either elevates (Halo) or taints (Horn) our entire view of a person or an entire community based on one impressive (Halo) or one negative (Horn) aspect). This last bias combined with Affinity Bias are actually two of the most dangerous ones as they get further heightened in times of crisis leading to some of the most harmful racist actions against individuals and communities at large.
Once identified, how do we tackle the issue, so it doesn’t perpetuate as prejudices within our decisions and behaviors?
One way that many companies and organizations have tried to overcome this is through employees’ Unconscious bias trainings. These HR-sponsored courses that have become the “cure-for-all”, for all diversity-related challenges, have as a primary goal to make employees aware of their negative stereotypes and thus help reduce inequities. If that is an avenue that you or your company are looking to take, I would caution you against selecting one that is only based on the traditional and highly contested Implicit Association Test (IAT) used for over 20 years but without convincing scientific evidence that it works to predict actual behaviors. Some even believe that making people more aware of their biases could backlash as they are being made wrong publicly and the sense of shame would heighten their rejection of wanting to participate in these trainings. But the real underlying flaws in some current trainings is that the focus is on thoughts, not on behaviors. So when looking at an Unconscious Bias training make sure it is a behavior-driven approach that goes deeper in the understanding and linking of the employees’ and the organization’s values, behaviors and actions vs a though-driven approach that solely focuses on extinguishing employees unconscious thoughts.
The most efficient and sustainable way to address unconscious bias is beyond the individual’s blind spots & stereotypes but additionally and mostly based on addressing & deconstructing the foundational issues that are linked to the organization’s systems, structures & policies and through establishing aligned values that are embraced across the board.
Here are some of the areas where systematic changes can be implemented:
1. Hiring, Selecting and Recruiting: One of the most impacted areas within an organization is the process of bringing in new talent. Make sure that the process at all 3 levels is based on objective, structured, individual, name/gender/educational background “blind”, and committee-driven tools, interviews, guidelines, and decision-making processes. Creating trainings and platforms where the everyone is trained in more inclusive diversity techniques and heightened Cultural Intelligence (CQ) can be a catalyst for change.
2. Promotions and Recognition: The criteria for promotion must be
pre-set and widely communicated to all. These should be objective, within a reasonable time frame and follow a fair process that includes more than one decision-maker as well as open to all to qualify for. Recognition should follow the same criteria and be linked to specific, measurable achievements, present benefits and awards that are equally appealing and widely accepted throughout the organization. That means making sure that they don’t go against the cultural, religious and / or community beliefs and customs of some.
3. Brand Identity: One of the most important aspects of a brand is its ability to connect with all its stakeholders: customers, employees, vendors, … While the aspect of brand connection is crucial, the alignment of the brand to the values that the company not only displays but fully embraces and embodies in every aspect of its interaction is decisive in making or breaking a brand. So, if the company is boasting its alignment on the values of diversity, it’s critical that the brand shows up as an inclusive brand that authentically represents, serves and embodies all the different aspects of the diversity genuinely and consistently.
One of the most overlooked areas in many industries is brands that claim are inclusive but show up and act as very exclusive. For example, if you are an inclusive beauty brand, you cannot have different product lines or different sub-brands based on skin color or gender. If you are an inclusive brand, you don’t organize separate meetings/events for your US-Latino customer or members, different from your general events. Obviously when you are a global brand and have a huge presence in other continents, you need to have separate event locations, but within one country, be aware of how you “treat” the underrepresented communities. If you are an inclusive brand, be mindful of the holidays you are acknowledging and celebrating as an entire organization. If you are not celebrating MLK day but have a large Black American community in both your employee and customer base, try to understand where your disconnect is? While it is impossible to celebrate all, leave some leeway for people to choose or have “free days” to use if their holidays aren’t part of your official list. Tap into your diverse employee and customer base to educate others about these topics so that the awareness can bring more people together and create higher CQ for the entire organization.
All the above indicates that in addition to all these tools and approaches, sustainable systematic change can only come from creating a strong foundation of organizational culture. This must be built on core values that foster mutual compassion, empathy, relatability as well as continued learning and growth, both at the individual and organizational levels. While creating awareness around biases & stereotypes is critical but finding alignment and connection through the values that are shared across the organization is what will bring everyone to feel closer and be more united. Commitment to embodying these values into individual behaviors and further integrating them through decision “filters” into organizational processes can in turn create an inclusive environment. If you are not proactive, your culture will define itself.
As the saying goes crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Similarly, crisis reveals an organization’s true culture. The dual crises of the Covid19 Pandemic and the Anti-Racism Protests that have shaken our country, society, economy, way of life and underlying belief system have also opened up the opportunity for us to see what and where our breakdowns and lapses – both personal and organizational- are. Each of us can now acknowledge them and commit to learning and growing from them. What an incredible opportunity, during these extraordinary times in our history, to become part of the solution and be an organization that drives & leads change vs reacts to it so we can truly create an opportunity for ALL to Believe, Belong and Become.
AUTHORED BY MONA AMELI IN SSN, MAR. 2020
"Creating gender-parity in corporate and board leadership within our channel is no longer a box to check off, but has become a true strategic need as recent research indicates financial and cultural gains are the end result for companies willing to invest in women."
AUTHORED BY MONA AMELI IN SSN, JAN. 2020
"The month of March has been declared by Congress to be “Women’s History Month,” a time period dedicated to raising awareness and knowledge of women’s achievements and contributions, from the ordinary and everyday to the momentous."