Framing a Sustainable Inclusion Initiative

Adapted with permission from THE INCLUSION DIVIDEND: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off by Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan (Bibliomotion, 2013).

By Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan

We interviewed a dozen chief diversity officers, asking them the same question, and received a very common response across industries, backgrounds, and experiences. The question went something like this: “It often is said that the role of the chief diversity officer is to work him/herself out of a job. Have you heard this statement before and what is your response?” The first response from the CDO is typically a chuckle. Every one of them has heard this statement, and some have, at one point in their careers, said it themselves. They then speak in metaphors about other chief officer positions: Once the books are set, does the chief financial officer no longer have a job? When an IT project is complete, is there no reason to have a chief technology officer?

Is there an ultimate end point for diversity and inclusion? Or a critical mass? If we just trained enough people, changed their attitudes, and got them to value difference, would that be enough? Can we drive inclusion by doing enough “diversity events”? The answer to all of these questions is “No.” A large-scale strategic change initiative requires a sustained effort and active change management. Many organizations know this lesson well from other change initiatives. Just as there are always more challenges for a chief technology officer, a chief diversity officer continually is tasked with moving the company toward ever-higher levels of inclusion, or at the very least, not allowing it to regress.

Corporate Safety Programs as a Model for Creating Sustainable Change

An apt comparison to D&I initiatives is an organizational change program designed to increase safety in the workplace. Safety efforts, undertaken by many large companies, are large-scale organizational change efforts. Creating day-to-day safety in the workplace requires a broad range of efforts at multiple levels within the organization. Individuals need information and awareness at a basic level to change their attitudes and behavior. The organization has to look beyond individual behavior, though, and search for patterns. Are there certain safety challenges that continue to arise? Are there particular parts of the organization where there are more safety challenges than others, regardless of the level of skill or competence of the staff? Do certain jobs seem to create more safety violations than others? When those patterns are understood, broader strategies can be developed.

At another level, the culture needs to change, or evolve, in some ways. “Culture change” sounds a bit amorphous. “Culture change” is a term often bandied about when discussing some sort of organizational change program. In other words, an organization knows it needs to change in some way, and describes it as changing the culture. Edgar Schein, the person often credited with creating the term, “corporate culture,” described it as a substantial process that involved changing underlying assumptions. All change programs do not require a complete culture change. Culture change often is folded into many different change initiatives such as technology, quality, or safety. Most individuals and systems alike find culture change to be challenging. Inclusion doesn’t usually require a full-on culture change process; however, some shifting and tweaking of the culture usually is required.

Culture is about formal and informal rules. It is about what is written down, but more importantly, it is about what is not written down. For example, a culture that makes it difficult to challenge authority can inadvertently result in safety problems, regardless of established protocols: At Korean Air, significant and serious safety problems resulted from a culture in which copilots deferred to the authority of captains, even in life-or-death situations. Seven hundred lives were lost between 1970 and 1999, during which time Korean Air wrote off 16 aircraft in serious accidents, giving it one of the worst safety records at the time. Hierarchical order was deeply embedded in Korean culture and mirrored in the cockpit; however, Boeing and Airbus were creating modern aircraft that required two equals to operate. Although the Korean Air crew was thoroughly trained in operating the aircraft (i.e., the written norms), there was no effort to parallel this technical change with a matching culture shift (i.e., the unwritten norms).

In order to overcome the strong cultural norm of being deferential to authority, Korean Air couldn’t simply train pilots to fly the aircraft. It had to develop processes that allowed copilots to be assertive when it comes to safety. The programs had to impact the cultural norms. Korean Air’s experience shows how creating sustainable change requires efforts at multiple levels. A change effort must impact individuals’ knowledge, shift patterns that are inconsistent with the strategic direction, and impact the culture—both the written and unwritten norms

What is true for safety initiatives and other large-scale organizational change efforts is also true for diversity and inclusion initiatives, which attempt to shift historical and long-held views, attitudes, policies, and practices. Real and sustainable inclusion requires, among other things:

  • A clear organizational rationale and strategy
  • A concrete connection to the company’s business
  • Reward systems that incent new behaviors
  • Developed leaders and staff who can “live” the change on a day-to-day basis

Sustainable change requires leverage in each of those areas.

Adapted with permission from THE INCLUSION DIVIDEND: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off by Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan (Bibliomotion, 2013).

Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan are principals forThe Dagoba Group, a New England-based organizational development and training firm that specializes in leadership and sales development, diversity, and inclusion.

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