“Culture” can be loosely defined as a collection of values that indicate which behaviors are encouraged and discouraged within a community.
If you want to know what any company’s values are, don’t bother reading the mission statement, or even the list of “values” that they’ve posted online. These can be a great step in the right direction, and there’s even a chance that they’re accurate. But in reality, they’re just a statement of intention.
The real proof of a company’s values is the behaviors that happen day-to-day within that company and the response to those behaviors by employees at every level in the company’s hierarchy.
Because culture is defined by such a wide range of behaviors, it will naturally change and evolve with the people and ideas that come in and out of the company. That is, unless a conscious effort is made to keep the culture consistent.
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Cultural Shifts Can be Subtle
We’ve all heard the anecdote about the frog who stayed in the slowly warming pot until it got boiled alive. Just like that frog, your company needs to be aware enough to detect the slight cultural changes that can degenerate into full-blown crises over time.
The most blatant examples of discrimination don’t come out of nowhere. They’re always at the end of a road that was paved with more subtle discriminatory behaviors that got worse over time.
These subtle changes may have stemmed from just one discriminatory manager who poisoned the rest of the culture. But any discriminatory action requires the complicity of the company’s leadership at every level: leaders who didn’t recognize these subtle behaviors, who refused to deal with them, or who figured it was someone else’s problem.
Culture Change Starts at the Top
A company’s culture won’t reflect its values unless leaders are willing to hold themselves and the rest of their employees accountable.
Culture-building isn’t something that leaders can outsource or delegate to a separate department. Leaders set an example for the rest of the company. If it’s clear that they’re not personally serious about diversity, the rest of the staff will follow their lead.
Some business leaders think they’re doing enough by simply ordering training for the rest of the staff (and then not participating themselves), or by sending out a memo or a new values statement. Employees will see right through these types of actions.
To achieve lasting change, leaders must back their words and statements up with their own behavior. That means doing things like reviewing diversity goals regularly, holding employees accountable to those goals, taking reported problems seriously, and participating in diversity training along with the rest of the staff.
Even standing up in a meeting and saying “I take this issue seriously, and I expect you to as well” goes miles farther than any out-of-the-box diversity training could.
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The Fundamental Qualities of Inclusive Culture
An inclusive culture requires engaged leadership that’s willing to be vigilant to cultural threats.
But there are also specific factors that lead to the type of inclusive culture that makes businesses innovative, agile, and high performing. Bersin by Deloitte did the research and published the findings in its 2017 Mid-Market Report on Diversity and Inclusion.
Here are some of those takeaways (which are consistent with our own experience as industry veterans):
- At inclusive companies, employees feel valued.
At companies where inclusiveness and diversity is prioritized, employees feel connected to the company and valued. They feel like they’re a part of the team and that they belong just as they are, without having to hide any part of who they are.
- At inclusive companies, employees feel safe.
If companies only pay lip service to diversity, employees will be less likely to speak up when they feel offended or uncomfortable. In diverse and inclusive businesses, leaders encourage a culture where people can speak up and ask questions, regardless of whether the news is good or bad. This includes being receptive to new ideas and innovative approaches.
- At inclusive companies, employees feel empowered.
Employees have influence over job tasks and are given the chance to try new things, stretch their roles, and learn new skills. Teams embrace change instead of fighting it.
- At inclusive companies, employees feel respected.
While Bersin didn’t officially test this category, they still listed it as an element critical to a culture of inclusion. Employees should feel that work outcomes, processes, and communications are fair, and feel that they are treated with dignity at work.
These four factors are all essential, and they sure sound great on paper. However, again, it’s not enough to list these qualities and expect your employees to adapt to them, even though you may have the best of intentions.