Big Changes in 2019: Racial Equity, Learner Journeys, and Transparent CEOs
As I reflect on the year, I’m struck by how exciting it is that people have gotten more comfortable accepting that we are all biased. Unconscious bias has long been such a hot topic. We’ve seen real success in raising people’s awareness, and for that reason, it’s been a crucial step in our collective thinking around race, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, different abilities and so many other dimensions of diversity. But as people have gotten more comfortable with this idea of bias, they sometimes miss the opportunity to go deeper. It’s time for meaningful dialogue on issues where we haven’t seen the needle move enough – like race.
As is made clear by the diversity reports from major U.S. technology companies, there has not been much progress on the numbers from the African-American, Native or LatinX populations in the last few years.
A client request for racial equity dialogue and assessment helped us put this topic front and center. Two or three years ago I would have considered being bold and pushing the envelope on racial equity, but I am much more adamant about doing so now; with politics forcing the stakes ever-higher, we need to push people’s thinking and awareness around these issues. We don’t want to miss the opportunity to do it.
For those reasons, I was also excited about our program on allyship because it was action-focused and took people a level beyond bias. And I was thrilled to see that repeat assessments truly measure results, as seen by one client of ours, a mid-sized financial firm. In their 2016 assessment, only 69% of their employees thought that the business rationale for diversity and inclusion was well understood and clearly communicated; that increased to 91% in 2019. A 22% increase in this lynchpin data set on leadership communication told us that there was a lot of hard work going in exactly the right place.
As an immigrant from India, the global work we’ve done this year with a large technology company is so close to my heart – and what I learned from it is that there are a lot of general concepts that work across cultures around inclusion and bias. With just a couple of activities we were able to resonate with everyone. One of our exercises, called Power of the Person, is designed to confront biases, and was tweaked for every location. No matter where we went, the exercise was effective. Our diversity facilitator entered each location with an open mind and no expectations or agenda, and found again and again that the biases were different on the surface but very similar on a deeper level.
People in China responded to very different profiles than those used in places like Prague, Argentina, India or Germany. The conversation that played out in each location was unique. And yet, the dynamics around exclusion are the same no matter the location. It turns out the there are some people we have biases for, and against, all over the world.
Several CEOs this year expressed their fear to me around DEI. Their questions ranged from “How can I be more vulnerable and say that I don’t know—and that I’m also learning?” to “What should I do as a CEO? I might do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing.” As a leader, you sometimes feel as though you are expected to know everything. But no leader can know everything in the world of DEI. The best thing to do is show your vulnerability. Be transparent. Make it absolutely clear: you are learning along with everyone.
A final trend that I’ve seen this year is toward sustainability on the DEI learner journey. We recognize that training in itself will not always change the culture, but we are able to say, “What’s a sustainable and scalable approach to training?” It’s not a one-off event, but part of a learning journey we are on together. What’s going to be the follow-up? How will we measure the impact of the training? Can we get people together after the training to help the learning translate to action?
Not every client or organization would be ready for this approach, but most will recognize that you can’t expect the same impact from a one-day training as you can from a learning journey. That leads to the question: Practically speaking, how can we approach training as a journey? I think the answer has to do with embedded information. Do we need to even call it a DEI session? As a client told me recently, “I’m doing this session on Performance Evaluation, but I want to include bias in there as a crucial component.” What a great idea.
On that note, here’s to more great ideas in 2020. I want to thank each of you, and wish you growth, peace and transparency in the new year.
Shilpa Pherwani, the principal of IBIS and a leading expert in diversity and inclusion, has been guiding global organizations for over 16 years on leveraging diversity as a business advantage. An organizational psychologist by training, she partners with organizations to effect sustainable organizational change by conducting cultural assessments, developing comprehensive strategic diversity action plans, and designing compelling and interactive classroom-based and online training.