We facilitated a meeting in April 2020 for a team of ten people. In the past such a meeting would typically have the eight co-located members sitting together in a conference room and the other two on video. The pandemic meant that for this meeting everyone was joining from home. The two people who were usually remote made an interesting observation at the end of the session. For the first time, they felt that they had an equal voice. They weren’t missing out on the group’s side conversations and break chat. They didn’t feel that they had to elbow into the conversation. Everyone was meeting in a shared space, this time virtual.

When the story was shared with a colleague, she noted that the two participants experienced what minorities often feel in the United States at work. That even when they are physically present, they are facing the barriers of “dialing in” – not always actively included, overly mindful of how much they talk, not always heard, and sometimes feeling just outside the important conversation.

The recent painful reminders that racism is still pervasive in our society has sparked new conversations within many companies. A client recently asked us if a company can be configured to truly increase diversity and inclusion and reduce implicit bias. We had a discussion across our team and challenged ourselves to look at this as an organization design issue. What should go into the design of the organization beyond the diversity and inclusion practices that many companies already embrace?

We start with a belief that leaders create culture. Of course, every company sits within a larger societal system and every employee shows up to work carrying with them a host of external factors. But there is no doubt that every organization has its own culture. And, leaders can choose whether they want to approach diversity on a superficial level or truly try to build an anti-racist and unbiased culture.

We also believe that organizations are systems designed to shape how people interact and make decisions. If you want to change behavior – and outcomes – then you must change the system, not just individual attitudes or stated policies. And, the best way we have found to change an organizational system is to make the change a strategic objective, and then holistically consider how structures, management and decision processes, and talent and rewards practices reinforce behaviors.

Strategy

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have been on the agenda of US companies for decades. Some leaders have taken a purely practical approach as customer demographics have changed. Others have installed programs, but not made it a true strategic business imperative. Something seems to have shifted in the past month, however. We are hearing leaders talk about moving beyond representational diversity and the comfort of inclusion. They are starting to address issues of power. Who makes decisions and controls budget? Does the strategy adequately represent employees, customers, and communities? What are the assumptions about the core purpose of the organization? What standards do we hold others in our ecosystem to? These questions begin to recognize the role that the organization, not just the individual, plays in perpetuating or diminishing racism. Changing out individuals and changing policy is not enough.

Structures

Organizations need to be structured to group the right work together and build the right connections across boundaries. But one can add a lens to ask if the organization is also structured to expand access to power. Do we have developmental roles that create opportunities? Do our work locations put us close to diverse talent pools? Do we have structured networks that provide people with varied communities that directly link to the business priorities? When the organization is redesigned, who is included? If design teams are not diverse, they can unwittingly perpetuate structures that reinforce old behavior or see empowerment as a zero-sum game.

The structure of the diversity “function” also can be considered. While CEOs today hold business leaders accountable for culture, they still often delegate diversity to a Chief Diversity Officer. As a result, rather than diversity work coordinated and woven into the fabric of the organization, it often exists at the margins as a set of siloed programs and employee resource groups.

Management and Decision Processes

Management and decision processes are the conversations where power is exercised. These are the forums where past habits and assumptions matter. Further, the interactions that feed into these forums often exclude those who are not part of the predominant culture. Some questions to ask include: Where may the benefits of relationships based on personal comfort become a disadvantage for those who challenge the norms of “fit?” What are our decision principles – what trade-offs across values are we willing to make? Who is in the conversation – are we going beyond diverse organizational perspectives to ensure diverse experiences? How are we making sure that we are really listening to new voices? Is decision-making transparent and accountable? While informal networks and personal relationships glue the fabric of the organization together, they can also be a prime source of exclusion. Those who know the implicit ways of working navigate successfully. Those who don’t are left out. Therefore, explicit management and decision processes can help foster inclusivity.

Talent and Rewards Practices

Many companies focus their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on their talent and rewards practices and for sure there is more to be done with regard to using consistent and transparent assessment and selection tools. But we have observed that organization change often requires forgetting, as much as learning. In addition to layering on new practices, challenge accepted norms that reinforce biases. For example, a recent study showed that when a company doesn’t ask for past salaries, people of color are provided more equitable offers that are not anchored to past disadvantages. Some companies are starting to value experiences as much as college degrees. A candid organization diagnostic can highlight the implicit and explicit biases that are built into current systems. Ask what the organization needs to stop doing, not just do more of.

Awareness, listening, and measurement are still important elements of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. In addition, an organization design approach can help ensure that good intentions result in real change.

The Kates Kesler team
Special thanks to our colleague,
Yvonne Wolf, for her feedback and suggestions.