Implementing diversity strategies of any type implies that the cultural fabric of an organization needs to be changed. As with any change management role, the most challenging aspect is managing the people.
Fortunately, humans can learn from nature how to overcome prejudices. For instance, the way our bodies rehabilitate following injuries offers a blueprint that diversity executives can use to implement diversity strategies that create inclusive business cultures. This can be done in phases.
Phase 1: Accept and Understand the Injury
Hold up a mirror to the organization. Analyze the numbers. How many women are in each level? Is there a drop-off point where women seem to disappear from the ranks? Have previous diversity initiatives worked? If the organization structure looks similar, the answer to this question is no. The organization is likely sustaining heavy injuries on the female side, and leaders should accept that change is necessary.
The first step of this process is to understand why prejudice and bias are normal and present in everyone. Humans have muscle memory for every activity repeatedly performed, and our muscles adapt to give us optimal performance. For example, when an athlete trains to run a marathon, his or her muscles grow and form for that particular sport.
If an athlete were to change sports, say from swimming to rowing, the body would need to build a completely different support structure by exercising and developing muscle groups in different ways. This is possible with hard, consistent work, and the same is true for organizations. So, if a company has a population representation skewed to a particular type, such as white males, only consistent cultural and behavioral reprogramming will lead to a more inclusive workforce, one receptive to viewpoints from different cultures and genders.
In order to understand the issues, metrics are key. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) collected data from performance management evaluations of its staff in 2006, the results of which were published in the 2007 document “The Leaking Pipeline.” The company compared the progression rates of the highest-performing men and women and discovered the progression rates for women rated as high performing were slower than those of their male counterparts. In order to educate the business on this discord, PWC developed a forecast system called Flowrates based on actuary assessments of the pattern of development that would be expected from high performers.
Phase 2: Break Organizational Bias
One-off training is not viable to effectively implement long-term, sustainable change. To overcome organizational and structural bias – essentially breaking set behavioral patterns – culture change is necessary, and this requires a long-term investment.
In his book Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Burns states, “Sometimes a simple change of environment is enough to jog the perceptual system out of familiar categories. When confronted with places never seen before, the brain must create new categories. It is in this process that the brain jumbles around old ideas with new images to create new syntheses.”
It is this consistent bombarding of the brain with new stimuli that leads to cultural shifts. Those who have experienced physical injury know that rehabilitation requires mental as well as localized physical intervention. Our brains have to consciously send signals to the ailing part of the body to wake the areas that were momentarily disengaged during the recuperation process. The same is true for organizations. Companies need to have a long-term strategy to fight bias head-on through companywide initiatives. These can lead to substantial changes in behavior, where ultimately employees embrace an inclusive culture. In his book The Value of Difference, psychologist Binna Kandola talks about facing biases head-on in a three-step process:
1. Understand that biases exist in all of us.
2. Become aware of our own biases.
3. Break the connection between bias and action.
Organizations need to identify where weaknesses lie. Is there a structural issue? Are there pockets of the business where bias may preclude minority groups from assimilating into the business? Are there pockets of the business where women are locked out? How is that likely to affect the business negatively, in terms of disengagement, loss of top talent or discriminating suits? How can the muscle fabric in those parts of the organization be broken and rebuilt?
At PWC, the organization identified the ranks of the business where women seemed to leak out : managing partner, non-equity partner and partner level. The organization set up a gender advisory council, which performed in-depth research to:
a) Uncover why women were not progressing at those levels.
b) Establish accountabilities to redress that lack of progress.
c) Develop an effective planning process to increase personal awareness on the cultural and human elements of the problem.
Phase 3: Work Through the Pain
Once companies have identified the shortfalls and why new diversity activities are to be introduced, it is critical to look bias in the eye. A tool such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) can help companies assess and tackle bias. The IAT allows diversity executives to measure associations that can reliably reveal unconscious biases in individuals. Painful as it may be to face one’s own bias, tests have shown that training people on these tests can significantly improve thinking.
For example, a team member may believe that he or she does not have a bias against women in business; however, when shown images of women and men and asked to record a response for each gender in the context of business, we often see there is a minor positive bias for men and less for women. These biases affect the perception of women as well as behavioral responses to them in the context of business, and vice versa.
Following the IAT, it is important to clarify where, when and how individuals will behave. As Kandola states in The Value of Difference, “It is a way of directing our attention to particular contexts in which we are likely to act fro unconscious habit rather than conscious intention. We train ourselves to recognize situations in which we want to act differently.”
In order to redress gender-based stereotyping of women as business leaders, one of the most powerful ways to use the IAT is to use positive images of women as leaders. In the same way that physical therapy requires us to work through pain in order to rebuild muscle fiber, this strategy can help recondition the brain to attach positive imagery to the out-group – in this case, women – reversing the traditional stereotypes held by the in-group – men – essentially retraining the brain by directly triggering mental associations.
To build on the individual bias reversal process highlighted in this phase, diversity executives can expand gender-stereotyping reversal activities throughout the organization. The activities for long-term reversal of systemic bias include:
1. Implementing a strategy to break gender stereotypes in internal and external communications:
Promote women and men in nontraditional fields using case studies, images and success stories to remove gender associations from job titles and responsibilities.
2. Coaching and training employees on the different cultural backdrops and average stylistic differences between women and men:
Supporting these visible “exceptions to the rule” is critical so that the natural tendency to stereotype is broken and pigeonholing avoided.
3. Fostering a culture of inclusion with the help of gender-neutral development tools that help break down the barriers between the out-group and the in-group:
Promote dialogue on the similarities between individuals in different groups, even when they initially appear disparate. Building bridges is critical to break the barriers of prejudice.
Phase 4: Build Muscle Strength, Embrace Learning and Cognitive Change
As with an athlete well on the road to recovery, it is important for organizations to build on their internal culture’s inclusive “muscular capability.”
1. Provide leadership coaching.
Individuals who stereotype others need to be confronted about their biases. By the same token, victims of stereotyping need to learn to appeal to perpetrators’ sense of fairness by openly questioning them. This will be uncomfortable, but it is an important part of cognitive change.
2. Create and implement perspective-taking frameworks.
It is critical for women to work with male and female mentors in a challenging business context and to use the learning experiences to boost gender and business acumen or skills development perspectives. More than traditional training, these learning activities need to revolve around business activities and should be supported by individual coaching programs to recognize how perceptions may be changing and how people may act differently in view of their own initial prejudices.
Phase 4 is all about implementing meritocratic recruitment and promotion processes:
1. Hiring on merit:
Hire nontraditional candidates through skills-based assessments and by simply asking “How can this person do this job?” For example, if presented with a candidate’s CV, focus on the skills the person demonstrated in prior experience, and see how far these skills can be utilized in the role to be filled. Don’t reject the candidate if he or she did not fulfill 100 percent of requirements in the past; allow the candidate the opportunity to grow into the new opportunities if he or she can demonstrate a certain level of aptitude in key skills.
This strategy assumes people can meet a standard, rather than rejecting people when they don’t, and implies there are ways individuals can perform, rather than looking for reasons why they can’t.
2. Collective and reverse hiring:
Include subordinates in the selection process for line managers and on different panels for the selection of individuals to a team or as part of the organization. Break the traditional hiring mold by engaging in a collective hiring process with mixed groups of individuals from different backgrounds to interview prospective candidates.
3. Blind hiring:
Conduct interview rounds from nontraditional talent pools via opportunities where bias is removed, such as virtual interviews with candidates without names, personal details and ethnicity indicators. Focus on individual skill sets rather than physical attributes.
4. Performance evaluation:
Conduct 360-degree assessments on how employees have demonstrated they can perform their roles. Ask clearly: What are their personal strengths? What do they want to do? What do they enjoy doing? Where would they naturally fit in with the organization’s requirements? This enables autonomy and encourages talent to define how they work themselves.
5. Succession planning:
Identify ways people might be suitable for a particular job or assignment, even though they do not belong in the traditional talent pool. Provide shadowing opportunities to see how they may feel stepping into a new role or function and which support systems they may require. Establish an internal headhunter, through whom managers looking to fill a role will use nontraditional talent pools and offer roles to internal candidates rather than turning externally to fulfill talent needs.
6. Talent management:
Engage employees and review their career-life aspirations and motivations throughout the employee life cycle. Ensure that work is satisfying to individual’s passions.
Phase 5: Sustain Muscle Growth, Review and Reassess
Like an athlete who needs to maintain top physical performance in newly re-formed muscles, organizations need to consistently build and review an organization’s progress in diversity development. Success in terms of individual bias reduction, individual engagement, succession planning and gender-specific employee turnover all have to be monitored and compared over time.
a) Measure progress in terms of talent pipeline, succession planning and engagement levels from across the business.
b) Review and investigate shortfalls, and revisit the strategy to remedy persistent gaps and devise remedial actions. This process should be organic.
It is only through long-term therapy that a person recovers from an injury. Similarly, redressing stereotyping and breaking biased muscles requires a long-term approach and a concerted investment to create a sustainable, gender-neutral business environment that will benefit all internal and external stakeholders. Establish processes to remind and prevent employees from letting their brains cheat and confirm stereotypes.
Breaking gender stereotypes also implies changing traditional roles for men. The recent recession has created a kind of role reversal, coined by some as a “mancession,” as the credit crunch produced more female breadwinners and turned the traditional role of men as the breadwinners of the family unit on its head. Offer experiences within the workplace to break stereotypes and to educate both genders.
It is uncomfortable to have to remind ourselves that we have blind spots and that we need to find ways to overcome them. The power of neurogenesis – creating new mental paths for our brains to process information in areas that do not play to our individual or organizational strengths – is not easily attained. It requires commitment from the business as well as tolerance to do things in ways that they have not been done before.
by Christina Ioannidis | Diversity Executive
[About the Author: Christina Ioannidis is an organizational development consultant, founder and CEO of Aquitude, and author of Breaking Gender Stereotypes: How Your Organization Can Redress the Brain Drain and Fuel Innovation.]