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Five actions to create systemic culture change in your organisation

The single most important thing a company can do right now to get to the root cause of failed DE&I initiatives is to conduct an honest, “outside in” assessment of the current state around DE&I using a holistic, evidence-based approach.

DE&I is at a crisis point. The pandemic exposed and widened existing gaps that have acutely impacted people of color and women in the workforce far out of proportion to the overall population.

How have corporations responded? Plenty have publicly staked their position by donating to racial justice organizations and creating new DE&I leadership roles within their organizations. But even as people around the globe are seizing this moment to highlight systemic inequity and racial discrimination—and advocate for change—Fortune 500 CEOs in the United States remain a homogeneous group made up of mostly white males over the age of 50, and as you look further down the pipeline of these companies, diversity dwindles.

This is a complex problem, and there is no off-the-shelf quick remedy. Changes won’t happen overnight. And while it may seem easier to simply replicate DE&I best practices, organizations need scalable ways to transform their workplaces and drive real change to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Here are five powerful actions organizations can take to begin to drive meaningful change from the inside.

  1. Utilize an evidence-based approach

While DE&I practices and investments have been around for decades, most companies have not seen significant outcomes. Still, a persistent DE&I issue is frustration at the lack of visible diversity on executive teams, in succession plans and in the leadership pipeline. To get different results, you need a different approach. The single most important thing a company can do right now to get to the root cause of failed DE&I initiatives is to conduct an honest, “outside in” assessment of the current state around DE&I using a holistic, evidence-based approach.

  • Listen to employee perspectives.Employees, managers and leaders personally familiar with the effects of inequity have stories to tell from their own lived experiences. While the reality is that there are divergent experiences within any group of people, the stories individuals share begin to form an organizational narrative.
  • Capture both qualitative and quantitative data.There are various kinds of data that provide profound insight into the current state of DE&I within an organization. For instance, an analysis of the talent pipeline can reveal where pools of talent exist within the organization, or a review of exit survey data can help you better understand leading indicators like retention.
  • Evaluate the organization’s talent systems, processes, and HR policies to ensure fairness and equity. Diversity, equity and inclusion must be embedded into every talent process, enabling HR and people leaders to make unbiased and equitable decisions around who to hire, promote and develop.

Be sure to look beyond representation. By bringing all these data points together and repeatedly asking why, it’s possible to generate far more accurate hypotheses as to what is causing the lack of representation. With that clear understanding and alignment, borne from an irrefutable evidence-based approach, you then have a better opportunity to charter a path for achieving DE&I goals.

  1. Dig for deep insight into employee experience

We can all agree that bias and discrimination still exist in the workplace, yet certain questions embedded in engagement surveys are too broad and thus seem to indicate that there’s no problem. Listening sessions with colleagues may tell a very different story. To get at the real differences that matter in employee experiences, understanding gaps in perception among demographic groups, and between employees and leaders, is critical.

An inclusion experience survey is one way to reconcile this anomaly and gain deeper insights at scale, exposing gaps in how employees experience workplaces. Employees must believe their leaders are empathetic and experience inclusive behaviors in their day-to-day actions to feel valued. Achieving that level of inclusion remains elusive, even for organizations with deep commitments to DE&I.

  1. Drive a mindset shift from the very top down

To set direction, create alignment and solidify commitment to DE&I, it is critical to start at the top. Visible ownership of DE&I by the executive team is the first step to making a real commitment. For diversity and inclusion efforts to become an intrinsic part of the culture of a company, it must be leader-driven at all levels.

At many organizations today, DE&I is viewed as an HR or learning and development initiative. It’s therefore hard to hold leadership accountable to preferred behaviors and culture-setting. Our advice to any company with an authentic desire to improve its DE&I efforts is to start with the leadership team, whose job is to articulate, with clarity, a future direction that makes sense for their business.

This means enlisting the executive team in a process of self-awareness and a deeper understanding of both the individual and the collective perspective and experience. Often, leaders think they are more culturally agile and inclusive than they are, but true inclusion requires envisioning and enacting new ways of leading based on valuing differences and acting as advocates and change agents.

Unequivocally, DE&I is a leadership issue that requires great fortitude. When leaders role-model inclusive behaviors every day, they cast a huge shadow that shapes the culture. It is simply a game changer.

  1. Create a deliberate connection between DE&I and organizational culture, values and strategy

For DE&I to be sustainable, it must be ingrained in the company’s core culture, starting with its values. In the development of value statements, it’s essential to be intentional about the link to DE&I behaviors. This might sound obvious, but in our assessments we often find that DE&I is missing from corporate value statements, or that while a company might consider inclusion to be a value, it’s relegated to being reinforced only in employee and PR materials.

In our work with clients, we hear executives clamor for ways to influence DE&I outside of check-the-box activities. One way to go beyond defining values is to define the associated behaviors expected by leaders to create bold innovation, like seeking different perspectives, challenging the status quo, and building a culture where everyone has a voice and is heard.

These behaviors are also being embedded into the performance management process because they are at the heart of the type of culture the executive team wants to boldly innovate. By measuring performance on these behaviors, leadership is making DE&I a core component of the organization’s culture – one with rewards and consequences.

  1. Embed DE&I into everything through conscious change management

DE&I must be embedded into everything. It must be integrated into every touchpoint of the employee experience, intrinsic in the culture, and a part of how you go to market and how you do business. The DE&I strategy must be communicated and shared with all stakeholders, from the boardroom and C-suite to all leaders and employees within the organization so everyone understands, owns and drives it.

Organizations that want to succeed must be change-ready. The human element of the change equation with DE&I—helping people feel emotionally safe, understood, connected and empowered—is complicated and warrants the development of a comprehensive change management strategy. This component is often missing in DE&I efforts, causing DE&I departments to lament that changes are not going well because people are “resistant.”

It’s time to shift our collective thinking about DE&I and create a sustainable, strategic approach, focused on behavior change, woven deeply through every company’s culture and modeled from the top. Unlocking the power of people and teams requires a shift in mindsets, behaviors and practices toward more equitable, diverse and inclusive teams and organizations to achieve business success.

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