Most companies now understand that building inclusive organizational cultures is not only the right thing to do but also supports performance and growth. The dramatic events of the past twelve months – from COVID-19 to louder calls to renew the social contract – have made the case for change even more compelling.
The issue is, however, that inclusion and diversity (I&D) is still being treated as a series of boxes to tick. It can be driven by assumptions and solutions designed to address specific diversity issues, without leaders really understanding why the organization’s culture isn’t inclusive or doesn’t create a true feeling of belonging. Although many firms are trying to drive behavior changes through training or hiring a broader range of talent, homogenous groups continue to prevail, which risks creating 'groupthink'.
Inclusivity shouldn’t be treated as a side project but rather an ingrained part of the culture of the organization. One way to do this is to get better at listening. In our experience, there is a clear link between leaders actively listening to their workforce and successfully creating a culture of inclusion.
By actively listening, we mean taking the time to engage with people at multiple levels, including individual and organizational, on a regular and structured basis. Although active listening tools are commonplace, such as employee surveys and 360-degree reviews, these need to be far more engaging and acted upon if firms are to make sustainable culture changes.
For active listening to be successful, organizations must create an environment of trust in which staff members feel comfortable speaking up about difficult or controversial topics. Confidential channels must be demonstrably and consistently anonymous, with no risk of attribution or retribution. Feedback must be followed up with a highly visible response and clear communication about the next steps. Most important to making reasonable and feasible changes to culture is understanding why people behave in a certain way.
Some of the tools or methods we use to help firms get better at listening include:
- Virtual focus groups of real-time, facilitated, online chatroom discussions in which 40 to 70 totally anonymous participants take part in a structured conversation. Live polling and analytics spot trends and generate insights from the discussion. Sessions take place entirely remotely, making it a valuable engagement tool as the pandemic continues.
- Peer-to-peer sharing, in which interactive groups share their challenges and work experiences, then offer feedback as a group.
- Employee panels, comprising of diverse employees (drawn mostly from more junior levels and/or younger generations), to discuss how to tackle issues facing the board of directors, such as strategic, operational, and cultural challenges.
- Reverse mentoring and trust circles designed to shift the power dynamics and enable leaders to hear firsthand about the experiences of underrepresented employees and build genuine empathy through storytelling.
Driving cultural improvements
Here are some quotes from our interviews with employees across a range of firms that show how cultural improvements can be made possible by active listening.
They want me to collaborate with other teams, but that is not how I am measured.
There’s little point telling employees to be more inclusive if these sentiments are not reflected in operating models, including processes, metrics, skills, technology use, rewards, and communication. Organizations should focus not just on what they would like to see in performance models, but also how these goals are to be achieved, with the right behaviors being visibly rewarded. Tools and nudges could be used on how to listen, demonstrate empathy, display appreciation, and develop self-awareness.
Take yearly reviews. We worked with a firm to overhaul its performance management system and to help its 20,000 staff hold effective performance conversations. The firm trained employees on how to observe behavior, hold conversations based on hard evidence, and provide constructive advice such as improving collaboration with colleagues across departments. Embedding a focus on continuous feedback resulted in completely new ways of working together, learning, and generating outputs. Most importantly, managers and employees alike were held to account.
It doesn’t really affect me; I am just your typical middle-aged white man.
Whether gender, ethnicity, age, flexible working, disability, mental health, or sexual orientation, don’t let inclusion be about “labelling” or “fixing” a particular group. Even where targets and metrics are needed, it’s often helpful to flip the script and talk about “70 percent men” rather than “30 percent women”. Diversity categorizations are important, but it’s easy to slip into a “them and us” culture by seeming to blame certain groups, such as “straight white men” for the status quo. Inclusion is a collective endeavor that concerns and benefits everyone, not a zero-sum game.
Communication channels should be open and employees equipped with the skills to have candid conversations. One client used a series of virtual focus groups to listen to the views and experiences of over 1,000 employees. Each session convened 50 to 100 people in a completely anonymous, confidential chatroom for a facilitated discussion. Advanced analysis of the chat transcript using AI and machine learning revealed deep insights into front-line experiences and real-life examples of the working culture. For example, less than half of participants believed their line manager was comfortable discussing inclusion-related topics.
The organization subsequently introduced a monthly reverse mentoring scheme to learn and share experiences. This increased awareness of colleagues’ day-to-day experiences and gave line managers the language and “permission” to hold these conversations more informally with their teams.
She gave a great speech about showing each other better respect, but that wasn’t what I saw in the meeting with her this morning.
Many organizations want a more inclusive culture, but the everyday behavior of managers creates a different impression. Firms must define and map the behaviors required to deliver the organization’s strategy, which leaders must visibly role-model.
One solution could be identifying critical moments that matter and committing to simple yet effective actions. For example, firms invest a lot of effort into personalized communication with clients, but rarely apply the same bespoke approach to staff at important moments like returning from a leave of absence. Simple gestures, such as hand-written welcome and thank you notes, or reminding managers to rate themselves on how considerate they have been to their team members and each other, can make a surprisingly big difference.
An inclusive future
Organizational culture will continue to evolve as we move out of the pandemic. Rather than working toward one final inclusivity goal or target, the most important task for leaders is to actively listen and pay attention to the everyday behaviors, the beliefs held by different groups, and their personal motivations. This will help to shape better communication and steer change in the right direction.
Active listening means delving deeper with individuals within a trusted environment to understand what is affecting them, then offering data-driven, quantitative and qualitative feedback on what matters. It is often the small actions that make the biggest difference: who you talk to, who you connect with, and who you praise. It also means being ready to engage with difficult messages that you might not expect or agree with, requiring bravery, introspection, and an open mind. Acting on this valuable feedback will influence employee beliefs and change their behaviors to start to shift the organization’s culture to one of greater inclusion and belonging.