Busting the Myth of the Unfixable Corporate Culture

How leaders can ensure DEI initiatives bring lasting results.

diversity at work

As organizations address the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), their initiatives touch the personal experiences of team members and associates who have been excluded or on the outside looking in. For them, it may stir up memories of bad experiences in the workplace, or feelings of impatience. They may think, "It's about time." However, those who have always felt included may believe that the culture as a whole is already an inclusive one. Or, they may not be able to relate to the experiences of those who have been excluded. As a result, they may not fully understand why DEI has become such a core focus for many organizations.

That's one reason organizations are confronting a need to move perspectives forward on how they talk about and address diversity, equity and inclusion. Leaders can start by stepping forward to say that the organization, as a whole, needs to do things differently or better than it has in the past. It's also helpful for those who may have perpetrated exclusive behaviors or actions in the past to acknowledge the negative impact they had.

Many companies have undertaken significant diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in recent years, with mixed results. The challenge is that many of those initiatives have not brought material changes in the company's workplace culture. Company culture is made up of the collective values, attitudes and behaviors of team members and associates. These values, attitudes and behaviors can be deeply held and difficult to change at scale.

One commonly cited example is the Coca-Cola Co.'s diversity efforts over the past 20 years. As detailed by the Wall Street Journal, Coca-Cola implemented wide-ranging changes in 2000 to how it hired, compensated and promoted employees after settling a racial discrimination lawsuit. The initiative boosted its percentage of Black executives from 1.5% in 1998 to 15% in 2010. However, over the next decade, the company focused more on gender diversity than on race. By 2020, the number of Black executives had fallen to 8%. Today, Coca-Cola has pivoted to a more comprehensive diversity initiative that spans race, gender and other factors — though its 2021 "Our Better Together" inclusive training program also provoked some backlash online.

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives such as Coca-Cola's address deeply-rooted, values-based emotional topics that are especially important to people who have endured a history of exclusion and marginalization. These team members expect results well beyond initiatives like training and awareness programs. The goal should be a shared sense of belonging, which comes with tangible changes in how people think, act and treat one another. Long-term success requires moving DEI initiatives beyond the purview of human resources to the boardroom and the front line.

The key to lasting change lies in shaping or reshaping the company's culture. Unlike most aspects of an organization, culture is self-reinforcing and difficult to modify. Leaders cannot dictate how a culture evolves, but they can influence its development by making decisions and displaying behaviors that align with organizational values.

Here are some ideas for how leaders can optimize their organization's culture to help DEI initiatives stick:

Consider the Cultural Implications of Decisions

Decisions about how the organization works, how it is structured, how roles are defined, what behaviors are rewarded, how hiring practices are executed and many others all shape the company's culture. Leaders can encourage desired behaviors by considering the cultural implications as they make decisions, such as designing work processes to be more collaborative or hiring practices to be more fair.

Model Desired Behaviors

Team members look to company leaders for signals about what behaviors are acceptable and permitted. How leaders act and speak can have significant impacts on how people are treated and how social issues are addressed. A leader who talks a good game about diversity but fails to deliver visible results can create cultural dilemmas rather than solutions. However, a leader who "walks the walk and talks the talk" inspires others to think and act differently.

Hold People Accountable to Culture

Too often, when people violate a cultural expectation, we look the other way. An effective leader who sees behavior inconsistent with the organization's values and culture must address the issue and point out what needs to change going forward. Courageous conversations with those who aren't living the company's values need to happen. One coaching example is the leader who pulls a team member aside to point out that he always made positive comments after other men spoke in a recent meeting but said nothing when each woman did. The leader recognizes the unconscious bias and reinforces the importance of treating each team member equally.

Proactively Address Differences Across Groups

Researchers at Brigham Young University found that women are disempowered in many business settings — not because people are intentionally exclusive, but because they do not understand how women contribute in a group environment. The study found women do not get as much speaking time as men, are negatively interrupted more frequently and are perceived as being less influential. These findings were most pronounced when the majority of group members were men.

For leaders, the goal is developing a lasting culture that is diverse, equitable and inclusive for all employees and stakeholders. Facilitating permanent change to organizational culture requires more than platitudes and PR campaigns. It begins with aligning the organization's choices with the culture it wants to create. This sets the stage for making it easy for people to behave, think and act differently — and not just at the surface level. Aligning DEI initiatives with organizational choices helps companies shift from a culture that reacts to current public sentiment to one that is truly interested in making permanent change for the betterment of the organization and its people.

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