Beyond Beliefs: How to Actively Build an Inclusive Company Culture

It’s one thing to include diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in your company’s mission and values. Consider it a prerequisite. It’s a much larger and more involved undertaking to show a commitment to DEI daily throughout your organization.

Too often, DEI resides in words but not in actions, leading to disconnects that aren’t always in plain sight. The disconnects might be internal, as in the case of bullying and microaggression—or they can be external, stemming from pandemics, politics, wars and general loneliness and unrest in the world today. In any event, it takes a proactive approach to DEI to build and maintain the inclusive culture that leaders want, candidates seek and employees expect. So, how do you demonstrate DEI and make it a centerpiece of your culture? Here are a few tips for senior leaders:

Take subtleties seriously

The Great Resignation didn’t happen because of the pandemic. It happened because people were unhappy or unfulfilled in their jobs. The pandemic merely uprooted everything we knew in life and uncovered some of what we didn’t know but maybe should have known at work.

On average, about one-quarter of employees in any given organization are fully engaged. Half are neutral and roughly one-quarter are actively disengaged. That means a significant portion of your workforce could be feeling discontent without saying or showing it. To see the unseen, you must be present. In today’s hybrid and virtual work environment, reading facial expressions is key, as is recognizing body language and observing how team members interact with one another. And when you sense something’s amiss, approach the situation as if it’s the tip of the iceberg, because it could very well be.

Be a curious leader

Leaders must show authenticity and vulnerability to connect with employees and gain their trust. In this day and age, with all the media we consume and public figures we critique, anyone can see right through leaders who say what they think they should say and/or do what they think they should do to check the boxes. To be authentic and vulnerable, seek new experiences that shape new views in and out of the workplace. Talk to colleagues you don’t know as well. Make it a point to venture out of your comfort zone. Inclusive leaders live and breathe DEI simply by being curious.

Meet in many ways

Whether held virtually or in-person, regular team meetings are a great start toward creating a safe space for everyone to be themselves and be a part of something bigger. But they’re just that—a start! Meet with team members individually. Create regular feedback and learning opportunities. Bring diverse groups of employees across all levels together for roundtable discussions and ensure these are safe spaces. The more ways you can hear what’s on people’s minds, the more insights and visibility you’ll gain. Keep in mind that if you’re implementing a new culture initiative, it can take time for everyone to warm up to it and actively participate. Don’t let a slow start discourage you.

Reframe the ‘culture fit’

The “D,” or diversity, in DEI starts with how you hire. Traditionally, the buzzword in human resources is the “culture fit,” or that candidate who naturally feels comfortable and clicks with your existing team. Hiring just for culture fit, however, can effectively derail DEI if your talent search doesn’t include a diverse pool of candidates. It also may result in stagnation, especially if you think only about where the organization is now rather than where the future will take it.

The inclusive approach is to value the “culture add,” meaning someone who might not have the same background that you’d normally consider to be a “fit.” If a candidate has any combination of the skills, character, behaviors, values, experience, professionalism—or even the potential to contribute to your organization—consider the individual for a position. It could be a role that might not be precisely what you’d envisioned when you posted the job.

Get outside perspective

It helps to have external perspective when you are seeking to improve your company’s culture. Even if you could do it on your own, you wouldn’t want to, because you’d be overlooking the entire point of inclusivity. It can be difficult to get an objective picture of where your culture stands right now and even more difficult to define where you want it to go for the future. Consider bringing in a consulting firm that can give you the additional perspective and resources you need to conduct a culture audit, identify opportunities for improvement and map the actionable next steps to a truly inclusive culture. Then it’s time to walk the talk. As a senior leader, your example will make the change possible.

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