What organizational culture best fosters diversity?

So many organizations say they want “diversity” on their team, and they focus on hiring people who increase the team’s diversity. This is really important, but it’s only step one of the work.

A really lovely set of building blocks :)

In my work consulting with organizations around culture, I’ve noticed that those that are more successful at fostering diversity have certain norms, values, and practices in common, which lay a strong foundation for a diverse team to thrive. Largely, these won’t happen unless you explicitly make them happen, because they run counter to what we’ve learned is the “right” way to do things.

As you read this, think: Does your team do this? Does every person (especially senior people) on your team do this? If not, how can you help make these practices part of the culture at your organization?

  1. Be explicit about what your culture is — We all have expectations of the right and wrong way to do things. And, no surprise, those expectations are not all the same. Every group has a culture, and when we leave that culture implicit, it’s hard for people to know how things work — so people default to what they think is “right” (which may be repeating patterns that aren’t healthy, like working nonstop and hiding mistakes). Instead, be explicit and write down the culture you aspire to have. I’ve written a whole guide on that here. At best, the kinds of people you want to work with you will read it and be excited to work with you. At a minimum, people will know what’s expected and be able to decide if that’s the kind of culture they want to work within.
  2. Learn from, don’t hide, mistakes — We all make mistakes, and many of us have gotten a message from society that mistakes are a sign of weakness or failure. Quite a catch-22. If our gut reaction is to get defensive or hide our head in the sand when we’ve made a mistake, then how can we learn to do better next time? When it comes to diversity, it’s important to know that we all will make mistakes around culture. Our job is to acknowledge the mistake (and the harm caused) and learn from those mistakes. This is especially important if our racial, gender, or other identities give us more power and privilege.
  3. Model vulnerability —Most people don’t expect to be vulnerable at work. But if we’re going to work on teams that work at being diverse, then we need to share our own reflections on where we’re noticing room for growth — as individuals, and as an organization. This is particularly necessary from senior leaders, because it models that it’s OK to not be perfect, as long as you’re learning. (Shoutout to PaKou Her, a brilliant consultant for organizations around racial equity, for highlighting this one for me.)
  4. Make intentional space to address concerns — Frustration is normal at work. That frustration can be interpersonal, or with the organization as a whole. And it serves no one to ignore those frustrations. But proactively giving feedback is hard for most people. And if it’s giving feedback upwards, or when you’re new in a job, then it can be nearly impossible. That’s why organizations and senior leaders that are committed to diversity proactively make space for individuals and the whole team to talk about what isn’t working, early, before concerns have festered and become Big Problems. Then, based on those conversations, things change to address the concerns. This seems like a small and simple thing to do, but the results can be transformative. This works even better if you’ve been explicit about the kind of culture you aspire to have, because you can work as a group to notice where the organization’s actions are out of alignment with your stated culture.
  5. Be open to trying new ways of doing things — The way you do something is not the only right way to do it. But sometimes we can get fixated on how something is done, rather than the end result. Make space for others to try new ways to do things, and you might be surprised at what can happen. That means giving people enough runway to have a chance of success, before judging if the new way is working or not.
  6. Value relationship-building — Relationship-building is a critical part of the work, and one we often forget to make space for. We cut off “catching up” to “start the meeting on time” — insinuating that time spent learning about each other’s lives is a distraction from the work at hand. It’s not. When we make time to learn about each other’s lives, we begin to see each other as whole, complex humans. We can more easily talk about our mistakes, give feedback to each other, and support each other in the work. Without those relationships, we risk seeing people as one-dimensional — which makes doing the work to support diversity so much harder.
  7. Explicitly commit to challenging -isms — Everyone has work to do around making mistakes around culture, but some of us have more work to do than others. When we’re in the mainstream, we don’t always notice the ways that we make life more challenging for people outside the mainstream — and our workplaces can let us off the hook by not pushing us around this at work. Organizations committed to diversity need to break this habit and be clear that everyone is committed to noticing and disrupting racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, ableism, size-ism, and so much more in all the ways it shows up. Not to call out for the sake of calling out, but to call attention to an issue so that learning and growth can happen. The problem isn’t that someone made a mistake around not noticing their power and privilege— of course they did, they breathe the air and it’s full of -isms. It becomes a big problem when we don’t work together to acknowledge that that’s happening, see how it connects to societal patterns, and learn. This isn’t just something we do as individuals, it’s also something we can look at at the organizational level. Here’s a good guide for organizations on how patterns that reinforce white supremacy can slip in to how you work, and what you can do about it.

What other cultural norms or values are part of building a strong foundation that can support a diverse team to thrive? Add your thoughts in the comments below, or get in touch here.

If you’d like support for your team as it goes about shifting your culture to be one that fosters diversity, reach out and let’s see if it makes sense to work together. This is some of my favorite work to do!