People talk a lot these days about the importance of creating a workforce marked by gender equity, inclusion and diversity. Yet, despite all the talk, progress remains slow.
One reason why actions don’t always match words may have been best described in a Harvard Business Review article. Elisabeth Kelan wrote about “gender fatigue,” a phenomenon that she defined this way: People acknowledge that gender inequality exists in general. But they also say it’s not happening in their workplace.
Reading that reminded me about the work we do in my firm to help people change gender relationships in organizations. We’re corporate anthropologists who specialize in helping organizations, and the people within them, do what they really hate to do — and what people really hate to do is change.
In fact, “fatigue” is a great word to capture the challenges that people have when it’s time for them to change. They can tell you what has to change, who has to change, and even by when they should change. But watch carefully as the time arrives and you’ll see that little has changed.
There’s a great quote about this: “I am all for change, just don’t change me!”
This attitude about change must itself change. An inclusive and equitable workforce is essential for our organizations if we’re going to capitalize on the power of cognitive and gender diversity. It’s urgently needed to benefit from the talent brought to organizations by women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Achieving this won’t be easy, but here are a few ideas for getting started:
- Begin to manage your mind. Our brains hate change — literally. The amygdala, a region of the brain involved with emotion, protects you by rejecting the unfamiliar. As a result, when you encounter something new or unknown, your instinct is to flee, fear, appease or fight. If you understand how your brain fights change, you can begin to collaborate with your mind to open it up to new ways of seeing. You must manage your mind and the story it believes to be true.
- To change how you see things, change that story. At my firm, we begin our work with clients by assessing the stories in their heads today about what’s “normal.” You can do this as well. Have your teams write or draw stories about how you do things today. Have them tell you these stories. They will capture their perceptions of their realities as they are today. You’ll see how they each have a different story, as they almost always do. And those stories are anchoring them in the way their worlds are, and limiting their abilities to see what their worlds could become.
- Think about what you “see” for your story tomorrow. Have the team visualize how they imagine a diverse, equitable and inclusive organization will be in the future. Have them write those visualizations as stories of their futures. Share them. Gather together people at every level of the organization. They have to create this shared visualization of a DEI organization and help each individual say what they’re going to actually do to make it happen, not some day, but the next day. See, believe, act is what we preach.
- Decide when you’ll be living this new story. Once you have those stories with their granular list of actions that you’re going to take to get to your visualized future, put a date on them. By when will you have this organization living that future reality you want to create? If you cannot see it, it will not happen. Talk about actual steps you will take.
- Set up small wins. We learn by making the unfamiliar into a familiar new habit. That will only happen if we do something. There must be experiential learning for change to stick, so create ways for your team to have small wins. Those small wins are like practice swings. You’re going to hit some out of the ballpark. Others are going to fall backwards into what you used to do. You’re now in the change zone. You have two choices: accept the failures and fall backwards or rethink your actions and set up another small win. Keep moving forward.
Getting to where you want to be with inclusiveness and diversity is a slow process that requires a lot of practice, not unlike improving your golf swing. Slowly, the “change fatigue” will turn into the “way we do it here,” although in reality you won’t ever arrive.
Along the way, you will have to rethink your onboarding processes, as well as look carefully at your recruiters and those who are doing the hiring. All too often, the pool of candidates is fine, but those doing the hiring are selecting people who are much like themselves, undermining that diversity that you might be advocating for elsewhere in your organization.
Whatever you do, don’t let your brain hijack your vision of a new and better future. Change may be difficult, but it’s critical that you see, feel and think in new ways so you can do what you and your organization need for a vital, vibrant, diverse, inclusive and equitable workforce of the future.