Many organizations have recently made a public commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The question then arises, “How do we start? What can our initial steps be?”
Those organizations who have a track record of pursuing DEI values are concerned with how to measure impact, choose appropriate targets, and plan how to reach them, in ways that contribute to business growth.
For both of these scenarios, a focus on communication is key.
Taking a holistic view of DEI, as I help my clients do at Health Communication Partners, means making sure communication is part of DEI strategy and action. Intentional communication is a crucial aspect of any DEI strategy, because communication is a large but often-overlooked component of everyday business operations. Communication is a key part of an organization’s culture. Communication also has significant impact on people’s professional growth, participation, advancement, and relationships.
Organizations want to be able to enjoy the many benefits of DEI work. Whether your organization is bringing diverse people together to innovate, improve the bottom line, create a safe work environment, strengthen the organizational brand, or increase market share, communication is integral. For DEI purposes, communication is also powerful to analyze in business contexts because it has both personal and organizational traits. We each participate in communication as individuals. But the ‘rules’ for appropriate and successful communication are set at a more distant social level, and these rules vary by the context we’re in.
Here are three ways to consider communication that is already part of your organization, and how it may be used as a lever for DEI strategy and action. Both external and internal communication is important to consider; I focus here on internal communication.
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How your organization defines diversity, equity and inclusion makes a difference for demonstrating progress and evaluating impact. DEI is now a part of the national conversation which is great news (and long overdue!). When we’re all using a term, it can be easy to assume we all know what it means. But that’s not necessarily the case. A 2017 study of global executives by Russell Reynolds Associates found that only 24 percent of respondents “are aware of a definition of inclusion” and only 47 percent believed that their companies have a “clear, holistic understanding of diversity.” Earlier this year we released a podcast episode on why it is important to be clear-headed about how the use of the term “health equity.” When so many of us use the same term, we might assume we mean the same thing by it. This can make it difficult for us to realize when there are real and substantial differences in our understandings, goals, and approaches. Differences in meaning–or fuzziness about definition of a term–also will have an impact when it comes to measurement.
Leverage your communication
Is your organization clear on what it means by diversity, inclusion, and equity? How is this communicated to employees? This doesn’t have to be a one and done – definitions can (and probably should) evolve. If you’re not sure where to begin, it can be as easy as starting with an online search for “diversity meaning.” Also, check out how your competitors are defining these terms. Over time, you might also consider what “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” have to do with each other.
Organizations whose workforce has not historically been diverse might find that employees have gotten used to communicating with people who are like them. This can lead to some communication awkwardness, if not outright difficulties. Katherine W. Phillips, Ph.D., Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics Management at Columbia Business School, points out that “the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.” She adds, “Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus.” Successful DEI efforts can mean that professionals who have not traditionally worked together are finding themselves around the same metaphoric or virtual table. Differences in people’s perpsectives, beliefs and assumptions will likely change the communication landscape.
Talking to people from other social, cultural, even professional backgrounds is not necessarily intuitive. As your organization becomes more diverse, you’ll talk with, work alongside, and otherwise interact with people who have different communities, commitments, and backgrounds than you have. People on your team may be coming from different places, or standing in different spaces–economically, politically, or culturally–than others on the team. This is, in a way, cross-cultural communication, and it deserves support.
Leverage your communication
How would you describe your organization’s current approach to communication? What is often taken for granted, or what are the hidden rules? How might this approach dissuade people with diverse perspectives from contributing?
From years as a consultant, I have learned that talk at meetings is a powerful element of corporate culture. Meetings are potent organizational and social events. In meetings, people can use talk to define problems in a particular way, argue for their perspectives and priorities, enact roles, and prioritize or sideline specific ideas and people. Even the language of a meeting agenda communicates what is appropriate to talk about, how it should preferably be talked about, and usually, who gets to do the talking.
It is possible for the way that communication is handled in and around meetings to make space for diverse voices. But left unexamined, the communication habits around your organization’s meetings may unintentionally make it easier for some people to participate than others. This threatens one of the deep benefits to having a diverse workforce: employees being able to leverage their different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge bases. As University of Michigan Professor Scott Page points out, “If you don’t bring a lot of diverse lenses to bear, you’re likely to have blind spots and make mistakes.” Hiring employees with diverse backgrounds is an essential step, but representation is not enough. People need to participate, and much participation is done through communication. Different people are more comfortable speaking in some places, or to some people, than others. We also can feel more or less confident in our knowledge, depending on where we are, and who is listening.
Leverage your communication
What kind of person does well in your organization’s meetings? Another way to ask this is: what traits does it help someone to have, if they want to participate successfully in meetings? Consider how people without these traits can be invited to more inclusive participation in meetings.
I have helped organizations of all sizes strategize and act on these issues. If your organization needs support with more equitable communication, contact me here on Linked. Or visit HealthCommunicationPartners.com and click on contact.