If wishes came true on their own, the workplace would be a much different place. All concerned would be finding equal pathways to senior roles. Both genders would be sitting at boardroom tables in equal numbers. Every employee wouldn’t just be free to confidently speak across the organization—every word spoken would be heard.
Unfortunately, despite all the recent corporate talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), not to mention the massive disruption to standard operating procedures experienced across the business world last year, women and people of colour are no more likely to get heard today in our new world of virtual conversations and Zoom convocations than they were when speaking in-person during the pre-pandemic period.
Citing depressing research, a recent New York Times article highlighted just how much enduring bias about woman makes it tough for them to get a word in virtually. When male executives speak more often, they are still viewed as capable and competent. But when women executives do so, competency is rated lower than that of the men. And as noted by Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, virtual meetings not only mirror the inequities of in-person meetings, they amplify the imbalances of the old normal.
The enduring challenge is this: Tackling bias and racism that prevent progress on EDI in the workplace requires more than wishing for change.
As a corporate anthropologist, I recently published Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business to provide women with tools and a framework that can help them question norms, smash preconceived notions about them, and challenge their own current thinking that can hold them back. This article aims to help employers support women as they pursue their goals and dreams by going beyond wishing for change, and actually changing organizational dynamics that prevent progress.
This won’t be easy because it involves changing people who have been raised within strict gender roles that taught them how to talk and play together long before the start of their corporate careers. Confusion is also an issue. It is easy to say that your organization wants its men and women to have better relationships, and that gender parity is the goal, but it is harder to explain what this means. However, there are steps that you can take to balance cross-gender relationships and improve the cultural context in which employees interact. And these steps will get organizations headed in the right direction—and do so faster, while getting them farther, than preaching change by itself.
First, consider the current state of an organization. Imagine that your organization operates like a live theatrical performance with employees playing their roles on a stage. These roles are well-rehearsed. Everybody thinks they know how best to play their individual parts in the production, including what to say to whom.
While this might sound like we are creating a reality TV show about the workplace, it is not a bad metaphor to help us understand how to change our organizations because even some of the best actors fail to play the roles that directors actually want them to play because how they act is based upon past experiences and habits.
Changing established bad habits is always an uphill climb because they rarely stand up and clearly identify themselves along with how they impact others. Instead, habits serve as powerful and efficient defenders of the status quo because our brains are always happy doing exactly what they think we want them to do.
Ask yourself what your employees would change if they were told their behaviour needed to become more equitable, engaging, and respectful of everyone’s differences. Would they understand what you are asking and why? Would they even know how their current performance is experienced by others? While you are thinking about it, keep in mind that everyone’s reality is a product manufactured by their personal story, and that we all tend to be blind to things that don’t conform to our custom view of the universe.
As the hero or protagonist in our own story, of course, we also tend to see discord as another person’s problem. This isn’t just why people are hard to change—it is why they get really upset when talking about the need for change. In response, our brains literally pump out cortisol, our main stress hormone.
“Keep in mind that everyone’s reality is a product manufactured by their personal story, and that we all tend to be blind to things that don’t conform to our custom view of the universe.”
In the entertainment world, movie directors often choose inexperienced talent—with limited habits and no preconceptions about their acting role due to their lack of experience as a performer—because it makes achieving their vision easier. Employers do not have this luxury. And unfortunately, when an organization decides that it needs to change something like the gender relationships within its walls, whether the decision is driven by an existing CEO responding to a crisis or a new management specifically brought in to spearhead change, employees typically have no idea what to do other than talk about the fact that they are being told to change. As noted above, this equals pain.
The following steps can mitigate the pain associated with change by focusing on objectives while letting employees lead the conversation about what needs fixing to achieve them.
Start at the end: As noted above, our minds do exactly what they think we want them to do, so visualize the story you want tomorrow’s organization to tell. You might want to see a story that has men and women really listening to each other in meetings, embracing their respective ideas with thoughtfulness instead of disregard. Perhaps tomorrow’s story is about an organization without silos, with lots of teamwork, and with more women in profit and loss (P&L) roles. Perhaps you envision women being more encouraged as leaders. Perhaps you see men taking a backseat more often because woman have been mandated to lead. Whatever your picture of tomorrow, first make it clear in your mind, then engage with your employees to figure out how to get the organization there. Instead of starting with an announcement that things must change, this allows all concerned to draw their own version of tomorrow based upon your vision. Producing the new story will still require behavioural changes, but employees will be recrafting how they play their own roles after collectively coming to an understanding of what needs to stop and helping to articulate it.
Set a release date for your new story: Once you have your tomorrow story written, set a timeline for producing it.
Build a plan backward: With a timeline in place, plan how to help everyone master their new roles and bring your new production to life. At Simon Associates, my management consultant firm, we help clients do this using what we call a ChangeMap, which outlines a step-by-step journey like a Google Map, but the focus is on what changes need to take place and the map is developed backward from the destination. In addition to serving as a catalyst for thinking and re-thinking what you do today and how you will modify or redirect actions in the future, this allows our clients to see the entire change process as both an epic story of progress and a series of steps, including small ones. Mapping out the small wins is important to ensure sustainable change, because small wins are a form of practice, allowing you to try out new ways of working together and sharing ideas during virtual meetings or in-person ones. In other words, they allow leaders to watch, listen, coach, and correct as needed to ensure the organization reaches its desired destination.
Create a pilot team of change agents: Identify a group of creative and adaptable people, maybe 10, and task them with driving your change project. Hand them the visualization of tomorrow and the map for getting there, and let them initiate the journey. Make sure these people are both skilled leaders and storytellers who can vocalize steps that need to be taken and why in a consistent and believable manner. As your mouthpieces for change, they need to meet frequently to talk about what is working and what isn’t and what needs more attention, and to keep the story alive and evolving toward where you want it to be.
Create new habits one at a time: New habits are created with little shifts over time driven by training and support. But this process only works if the focus is on active, experiential learning, not lectures or workshops. Your people must learn what you want them to do through experience. When they learn, they need applause to reinforce the new behaviours, and when they fall down on what is expected, they need positive support to keep trying.
Measure the right things: Metrics help, but make sure you are measuring the changes you want to take place. Keep asking what you want to change. Measure it early on, and again further down the road to see if you are moving the needle in the right direction.
Celebrate: The mind really does love to know what it is supposed to think and do, so celebrate objectives you want to achieve. If you fail to reinforce objectives, they can be easily forgotten, especially when the objective involves replacing old habits that can easily hijack the learning process. So, celebrate, and symbolically reward people for the right behaviours.
Don’t simply assume your employees will reject change no matter how it is positioned. More often than you might think, an organization’s people really just don’t know what change could or should be. So, help them understand by drafting the story of tomorrow with them and then support the journey and celebrate each small step forward.
The trip you take might be long, and it will probably be uncomfortable for many at more than a few points, but by adding meaning to the pain associated with change, an entire organization can arrive at a better place.