Clean Up Your Toxic Workplace

by Burrs, Dr. Linda Thursday, February 17, 2011
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Organizations with sound diversity and inclusion strategies frequently experience higher rates of creativity, are able to hire and retain the best and brightest talent and make product development a priority in order to stay competitive.

Yet for years — and in some circles today — the word diversity has been associated with controversial, even negatively viewed practices, such as affirmative action, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, artificial quotas, and listed as the cause of unqualified people “getting in.” These arguments are rooted in our personal values, beliefs and tribalism.

Inclusion — a state or condition where differences are accepted, valued and respected — is often thought of in a more positive light despite creating many of the same effects. Employees in inclusive work environments often perform at higher levels, commit to staying longer with the organization, and are more creative and more engaged than those working in more exclusive environments. Like a safe and healthy planet that is free of toxic waste, we need safe and healthy organizations that are free of toxic attitudes and destructive behaviors.

Four Challenges to Intentional Inclusion

Over the years, many diversity strategies have failed because leaders do not intentionally make cultures inclusive. For some, diversity sounded like a good idea, so leaders pawned off the work onto overworked, already stretched HR teams that were ill-prepared and poorly equipped to implement half-baked strategies that might or might not be taken seriously.

In many of these cases, diversity training took the form of awareness training, and it left much of the work of inclusion undone. It is one thing to teach people to be aware of their differences; it is quite another to teach people the skills necessary to manage those same differences.

There are four major challenges to creating a culture of intentional inclusion: communication, complexity, conflict and change. Left unchallenged, even the best structured and resourced diversity programs will be stressed and struggle to reach desired goals.

These four challenges to inclusion, while independent concepts, are congruent. If individuals have poor interpersonal communication skills, chances are they won’t deal with conflict appropriately. Or, if someone is easily discomfited by the complexity of life, that person is more likely to dislike change. If change is distasteful, conflict is seen negatively, and individuals will not be likely to embrace communication with those with whom they are in, or likely to be in, conflict with. Building an inclusive culture makes it easier to deal with these challenges.

There is a strong parallel between the work it took to popularize green practices and the work required to implement a sustainable diversity and inclusion program, not the least of which is that both ideas are beneficial for all involved. Just as families are recycling, using earth-friendly products and making the most of economically sound, environmentally safe practices, it makes sense to consider user-friendly ways to make teams and organizations safe for each employee’s differences. Making an organization’s culture inclusion-friendly requires the same level of commitment needed to embrace a “green” way of life.

Executive Sponsorship Is a Must

It is practically impossible to make inclusion work without support from the highest levels in an organization. Commitment to earth-friendly policies has come from the highest and lowest levels of federal and state government, just as intentional inclusion-friendly policies should come from the executive suite and managerial levels. Failure to secure executive commitment is often the deal breaker in securing buy-in from the rest of the organization. To win executive sponsorship, diversity executives should avoid the use of shame, blame and guilt to encourage specific behaviors.

Further, it’s important to remember that promoting inclusion is not always rooted in the business case. There are moral arguments about what is in the best interests of the organization — or in the case of green policies, the planet — and the community in which the organization is located. One moral argument is that we should care for our planet for those who will come after us. Establishing inclusion-friendly policies is similar; it’s about creating safe workspaces for everyone.

Change takes places when executive-level officers get involved and inclusion efforts receive the resources needed to make the practice germinate and take root in the organization’s culture. It is not enough for a leader to express a belief in diversity. As with successful enterprisewide green initiatives, leaders have to demonstrate actions and commitment to creating an inclusive workplace, and this requires a strategy.

Design an Inclusion Strategy

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice met the Cheshire Cat during a time of confusion, when she knew she needed help, direction and a plan. Yet when the cat first appeared, Alice was a bit startled. Similarly, diversity executives evaluating a new or overhauled inclusion initiative may be daunted at first glance, but that should not be a deterrent.

In the story, Alice asked the cat which road she should take. She knew she had to do something, but she had no idea where to start. The cat said the road to take depended a great deal on where she wanted to end up. Alice said it did not matter to her, and the cat suggested if her destination didn’t matter, which road she took shouldn’t matter either because all roads lead somewhere.

If the end result for inclusion is ambiguous or unimportant, it doesn’t matter whether diversity executives design a workable strategy. Of course, outside of fairy tales, we know that strategy certainly does matter. To prep for successful outcomes, diversity leaders should take the time to decide what road to inclusion is best to travel — which business outcomes the organization can benefit from the most — before setting a plan of action in motion.

There are many ways to approach strategy development. First on the list: Align the diversity and inclusion strategy with the organization’s overall vision. These two goals are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be. Diversity strategies are just like every other functional goal except diversity and inclusion have to be aligned in some way to every functional group in the organization. Simply put, when the executive team meets to set the organization’s strategic direction, add a diversity and inclusion component to each business unit.

Just as every person should be aware that his or her contribution matters to efforts to sustain the planet, every single employee should be crystal clear on how his or her job adds value to the organization’s strategy in general and the diversity and inclusion strategy in particular. Adding a diversity and inclusion component to the organization’s values and as a measured performance goal in the employee appraisal process are critical pieces to ensure the success of the inclusion strategy. It must be embedded in every function of the organization. Everyone must be responsible for making the strategy work. Ideally, every executive, middle manager, supervisor and team leader should constantly and effortlessly ask: How does what I do fit in with our diversity and inclusion strategy?