How Critical Dialogue Builds Inclusive Companies

iStock_000017389678XSmallBy Tina Vasquez

For years now, the nonprofit research organization Catalyst has been doing critically important work, work that we write about often here at the Glass Hammer. The organization seeks to expand opportunities for women and businesses and create more inclusive workplaces. Arguably, Catalyst’s Engaging Men research series is pushing these endeavors forward like never before. According to the organization, men are a critical, untapped resource in diversity and inclusion efforts aimed at eliminating gender bias. To address this disconnect, Catalyst’s Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives research series “provides evidence-based advice about the most effective ways to partner with men in ending gender inequalities at work.”

The fourth report in the series, entitled “Anatomy of Change: How Inclusive Cultures Evolve”, was released in September and piggybacks off of the previous report “Calling All White Men: Can Training Help Create Inclusive Workplaces?”, which details an approach that makes white men part of the solution, rather than simply dismissing them as the problem.

“Anatomy of Change” seeks to answer an incredibly complicated question: How do you make a male-oriented organization more inclusive, enabling women and minorities to advance? By studying how the industrial automation company Rockwell Automation was able to transform its predominantly white, male-orientated North American Sales division into a more equitable workplace, Catalyst was able to highlight effective solutions for companies seeking to be more inclusive. The good news is that progress is not only possible, but can be made relatively quickly. The caveat: companies must be willing to engage in deeply honest, candid conversations that tackle the challenges and hardships that women and people of color face.

Diversity & Inclusion: A Cultural Issue
Jeanine Prime is the vice president and center leader of the Catalyst Research Center for Advancing Leader Effectiveness, as well as a lead researcher and contributor to the Engaging Men series. To some, the idea of focusing on white men to address diversity in corporate America may seem a little unusual, but according to Prime, Catalyst research suggests that it might be the best way to make the biggest impact.

“Leading-edge companies are seeing diversity and inclusion as a matter of culture change—not just a matter of representation,” Prime said. “To create and sustain diversity, you have to build inclusive culture; it’s not just about ‘getting the numbers.’ By virtue of that fact that white men hold most of the positions of power in business, they have a tremendous influence on corporate cultures. When you acknowledge the magnitude of their collective influence, engaging white men is a no-brainer. You really can’t be successful if white men aren’t participating in the effort.”

A large part of the reason the upper ranks of companies are populated by white men has less to do with malicious discrimination and more to do with something called homosocial reproduction, which in very basic terms means our natural tendency to gravitate toward those who are like us. Prime says that Catalyst’s research on high potentials in the pipeline found that gender gaps in promotion rates are attributable to differences in men’s and women’s access to sponsors, senior-level colleagues within their organizations who can provide them with opportunities for assignments or “insider” information and resources. Women and men who have equal access to sponsorship advance at the same rates.

The problem, again, is that we’re naturally inclined to gravitate toward those who are like us – and this is true in business as it is anywhere else. So, if the positions of power at your company are held by white men, the people they mentor and sponsor will be other white men. This is true of all races and genders. For example, if a Latina is in a position of power, she will be more apt to sponsor a junior colleague who is Latina.

“Because white men so often hold positions of power, white men in the pipeline are better positioned to benefit from sponsorship,” Prime said. “So inadvertently, there are mechanisms in place within a company’s culture that benefit white men more than other groups. Even if this is unconscious, it can have a huge, compounding effect that continues to re-create existing inequalities”

Facing Race
Catalyst’s recent study found that new, more open conversations were helping to transform the culture of Rockwell Automation because leaders—mostly white men—are now more motivated and more skilled at bridging the divides that often keep whites and people of color, as well as men and women, from talking and working together to create inclusive workplaces. Employees at all ranks—not just senior leaders – are seeing the changes, too. They are reporting that the culture is becoming inclusive. They feel that when they share differences in experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds, these differences are now being valued, rather than being glossed over and ignored.

Part of the challenge of getting to that point, was helping white men understand the challenges that women and people of color face in the workplace, challenges they may not even be aware of because they are not barriers they have ever – or will ever – personally experience.

Prime says that as individuals, most white men don’t view themselves as “having power”, even though they may be working in a company where the majority of leaders look like them.

“At a personal level, facing many of the same day-to-day challenges that we all deal with at work, it can be difficult for a white guy to see himself as part of a group that is powerful. And harder still to recognize that belonging to the dominant group confers certain advantages,” Prime said. “But Rockwell understood that helping white male leaders recognize these group-based advantages was absolutely pivotal to their culture-change efforts.”

At Rockwell Automation, senior leaders participated in leadership development programs, like White Men’s Caucuses and White Men and Allies Learning Labs, to help these understandings take root. Prime says how the issue is framed is also critical to success.

“Rockwell Automation’s approach was not about blaming or shaming white men. The message they were sending to white men is this: this isn’t your fault, but we can’t fix inequalities without your leadership,” Prime said. “Too often white men feel blamed and shamed by the approaches organizations take. Rockwell took a different road by issuing a call to leadership. They essentially said this to managers, ‘Being an effective leader is about being able to develop and advance people who are different from you—not just those who share your background, perspectives, and experience.’”

How To Make The Change
Companies truly invested in changing their culture and creating a more inclusive workplace, above all else, must be willing to engage in what Prime calls “critical dialogue,” which is a very open-ended, nonjudgmental conversation that has been shown to be effective in bringing people from different backgrounds together.

“This is a critical pivot point for cultural change to happen,” Prime said. “Having dialogue about diversity in a way that is not defensive, in a way where people are not just hearing – but listening – and feeling respected in the process, is not easy. But it’s the only way for real change to occur. It’s also very important to focus on skill-building. Awareness isn’t enough. You have to give people the tools and the ability to practice what they’ve learned.”

“How Inclusive Cultures Evolve” details how Rockwell Automation was able to sustain and amplify the skill of dialogue. Two factors were critical: equipping a critical mass of employees with dialogue skills, and providing plenty of opportunity for employees to practice and hone their new-found skills.

“If your employees don’t feel as if they can talk openly and candidly about their experiences surrounding race, ethnicity, or gender, and if dialogue surrounding race and gender is seen as ‘taboo’, culture change isn’t happening,” Prime said. “But by giving employees the tools to engage in critical dialogue, organizations have an opportunity to jumpstart change, laying the foundation for an open and inclusive culture.”