In addition to individual and group coaching, I often work onsite with an organization, facilitating company-wide conversations, workshops, and planning sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While I write a lot about individual experiences for women and people of color navigating workplace bias, today’s article is a close look at how, at an organizational level, we can create and nurture a workplace that welcomes difference, values diverse perspectives, and holds people accountable for equity.
I’ve learned a great deal from immersing myself within a company’s culture while helping teams hold difficult conversations examining their values. We talk about differences and take a hard look at our identities, our privileges, and biases. This is tough internal and group work. And it is essential to addressing the structures and forces that hold us all back from doing our best work.
A first crucial step to DEI work is understanding identity. It starts with seeing how your identity reaches beyond your individual self—identity is not just you alone, it’s who you are within different groups. And it’s who you are within the dominant culture.
Let’s back up a step. The dominant culture of most organizations in the U.S. is a white supremacy culture. I know this is a loaded term that fills us with discomfort. White supremacy, we like to think, is open bigotry and discrimination, vile racism, and the KKK. White supremacy, as we see it in images of lynching, is easy to identify and disavow.
We Need to See Every Identity
But whiteness itself is a concept that most people simply don’t see or acknowledge as an identity. Here’s a quick example. Recently, I was in a conversation with a group about their identities. They were asked to describe what’s special and different about their identity. While the people of color could speak to their difference, several of the white people expressed feeling upset at not being able to answer the question. They didn’t see themselves as having an identity. Which is another way of saying they didn’t see their whiteness.
Why is understanding identity the first step in diversity, equity, and inclusion work?
If you can’t “see” your identity as one among many others, you’ll assume your behaviors, preferences, and expectations are normal and correct. (Consider this example of how seat belts designed by all-male engineering teams ended up only protecting men.)
If you can’t acknowledge the dominant cultural values at work, you’ll assume your definition of “professional” is the only one.
If you don’t understand our complex group identities, you can’t acknowledge how they can oppress people who are different, and you can’t uphold a framework for accountability.
And accountability requires understanding what whiteness means in order to create an environment that sees and welcomes difference.
Making the Invisible Visible
The following list of white supremacy cultural values comes from Tema Okun of Dismantling Racism:
These values permeate our corporate culture and are taken for granted as “normal,” “expected,” and “professional” behavior. While individually these values may not be oppressive when they are combined to create a particular work culture, together they begin to entitle some while disenfranchising others.
Take the many recent instances of puntative action or bans against black hair styles. Black children are being sent home from school, given detention, or forced to cut their hair to conform to a white standard of acceptable appearance. White supremacist culture does not call for a personal examination of biases or the responsibility to make differences equally valued. White supremacist culture says that differences must be eliminated because they are infringing on certain individuals’ right to be comfortable.
We All Adapt to Fit in and Feel Safe
When you aren’t allowed to show up with your full self—differences and all—you end up filtering out parts of your identity in order to make others comfortable and keep yourself safe. And the truth is everyone adapts to white normative culture. White people too are penalized for going outside the norms. It’s just that white privilege assumes they are making conscious, individual choices to act against cultural norms. In other words, a black colleague is seen as “disruptive” while a white colleague exhibiting the exact same behavior is seen as “straight-talking.”
And here’s a fascinating paradox: When white people acknowledge the ways in which they work to support white normative values, they gain the capacity to choose and, in the end, become more individualistic. Because white normative values also take away white people’s capacity to show up fully with differences.
Getting Comfortable with Discomfort
Assimilation is an old American ideal that claims to level the playing field, but in reality, doesn’t make room for difference, friction, disagreement, tension, or discomfort. As a conflict-averse society, we need a major re-framing of how we understand and utilize conflict.
There is Such a Thing as Good Conflict
Conflict is not by definition confrontational or aggressive. Conflict is simply the meeting of opposing, incompatible, divergent, incongruous, or contradictory views, needs, or opinions. To me, that just sounds like the everyday real world.
A new client recently reflected on working with an all-male team of engineers, whose expertise is problem-solving and whose currency is having the right answer. It makes for an atmosphere hostile to uncertainty or questioning and a team who cannot work together. What really ends up suffering is innovation.
What Real Collaboration Looks Like
In our worship of assimilation, we are oppressing our own innovation. It’s not conflict we need to overcome, it’s our inability to handle discomfort. Good work does not need to be (and in fact rarely is) smooth or harmonious. And good work rarely happens quickly. In addition to embracing conflict, we need to get comfortable with mess, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
Our other critical misunderstanding is that all conflict needs to be resolved—that there must be winners and losers. Collaboration—working with someone to create something—is a continuous act of showing up to the discomfort and valuing difference. When our own defensiveness prevents us from considering every angle, how can we possibly arrive at the best answer?
Envisioning an Organization’s DEI
My good friend Alison Park of Blink Consulting shared these important concepts about diversity, equity, and inclusion:
Diversity is a fact. Even in a group that seems to share every attribute, there will be diversity in some way, and we need to see those differences.
Inclusion and Equity are values. We need to articulate and practice them, and we need a structure to hold people accountable to these values.
Because diversity without accountability is actually hostile to difference.
What does equity look like? Full participation from everyone and full opportunity to thrive. Meaningful consideration of their ideas, perspectives, experiences, opinions, needs, and drivers. And full safety to show up exactly as they are, regardless of who’s comfortable or not with their differences. Because discomfort is where growth and real innovation can happen.
What might company accountability look like? It can be in the form of specific evaluation criteria on progress, performance, and ability to manage conflict. It can be in how supervisors are trained to manage diverse teams, give feedback, measure results, and facilitate collaboration. It can also be in the form of incentives, monetary or otherwise, for equity practice.
Equity is Accountability
Equity practices remove the biases that prevent every individual from having an equal opportunity to thrive. In this way, equity practices are what we need for an actual meritocracy—they are the ultimate form of accountability.
In other words, when everyone has the same support and opportunities, then demonstrating results is left to individual talents, skills, and work ethic to get the results. If everyone is measured and evaluated equally in a safe company culture, then individual failures will truly be individually accountable, not on account of biases within an oppressive system.
Taking it on the Road
This summer, I will be facilitating DEI work on site with organizations courageous enough to examine their values and create real equity practices. I am excited to dive into this crucial personal and professional development that has the potential to reshape whole organizations.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive my newsletter directly in your inbox, please sign up here.