Keeping Diversity & Inclusion Alive in Times of Crisis: Adapt, Survive, and Thrive

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May 4, 2020

Over the past several years, organizations around the world have been trying to unlock the power of diversity. With numerous studies, articles, and thought pieces shining a light on the bottom-line impact of a diverse and inclusive workplace, many organizations have embraced diversity in a way they never had before.

Some organizations were widely successful with their initiatives. Clorox, for example, achieved best in class employee engagement (87%) and innovated its brand and products through tapping employee resource groups as business growth and transformation partners. Others struggled in the new world – think of the organizations in the press boasting about progress in pay equity yet lacking diversity in management roles.

However, no matter how much or little progress your organization made, it all seemingly came to a halt in early 2020 with the arrival of COVID-19. Businesses and societies have both been thrown into a spiral of dizzying proportions, in a way very few people have seen in their lifetime. The Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) needle that was so hard to move before has now turned into a 12,000-pound elephant.

Adding to the weight of the current situation, your most at-risk groups (minorities, new hires, etc.) are often the ones who will feel the brunt of any decisions made in the boardrooms. In many industries, these individuals are the ones on the front lines, the ones continuing to keep society functioning at some basic level. Leaders have the daunting task of communicating harsh business realities while trying to preserve a sense of belonging.

When the situation and outlook are changing on a daily basis, how can companies adapt, survive, and thrive? Here are some ways organizations can practice simple, inclusive leadership concepts, and sustain diverse and engaged workforces that can persevere, both now and in the future.

Build Empathy With Your Workforce

We take for granted that it is easier to put our best foot forward when the situation is at its best. However, for some of us, our situation was not perfect – even before COVID-19.

In that way, the crisis has almost served as a great equalizer. We know that empathy is one of the critical skills necessary to drive inclusion, so leverage this time to explore more about others’ realities and to build open, meaningful relationships with colleagues.

We are all challenged to adapt to new realities. If you and your spouse are struggling to balance work with child care, for example, think about how difficult it is for a single parent in the same situation – and what other challenges they may face daily. Challenge yourself to be more open, more forgiving, and more curious than usual, and you’ll be amazed at how deeply it may change your perspective.

Draw Out Hidden Talents

During this time of upheaval, our tried and true processes and procedures get thrown out. Many goals are irrelevant or changing by the week, and agility in the face of uncertainty is vital to surviving it all.

Allow yourself to focus on what you are good at, and invite others to participate based on their unique strengths and skills. Consider taking a moment to give opportunities to those you may not have previously considered, and give them the chance to impress you. Some people thrive under pressure, while others have been waiting for an opportunity to mix up their daily routine and contribute to a new project.

We know that these difficult experiences can be some of the most meaningful and impactful to our personal growth and development, and can contribute to team innovation and transformation in ways we would not have been able to accomplish otherwise. The one thing you can do to make a difference today? Ask. Check to see how employees think they can best contribute right now, and make sure they feel supported and appreciated in the process.

These fundamental tenets of a productive D&I effort, put into place now, can be an effective tool not only for the morale of your organization as a whole – but for productivity, as well.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Managers and leaders are going to be faced with some difficult decisions ahead if they have not already. This is when you get to show everyone that you can walk the walk – and that every D&I mantra and mission statement committed to before COVID-19 was not just for show.

In times of stress, we are most tempted to revert to our natural survival instincts, the fight or flight instincts that cause us to evaluate those similar to us more positively than those who are different from us. Often, these core archetypes of ours do not take into account our evolution as leaders – the experiences that have shaped us and helped us to grow – but instead, rely on the most fundamental of our assumptions and thought processes.

As detailed in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, our brain has two thinking processes:

  1. System 1 – Fast & Automatic.  It “believes and confirms” our instincts, with almost no effort required.
  2. System 2 – Slower & Reflective.  It is cognitive and rational, encouraging self-control and good judgment.

To walk the walk, remember just that: walk before you run. We need to slow down to speed up and engage our “System 2” thinking to avoid bias in our decision-making – especially as it relates to judgments about employee performance and employment status. What you do (or don’t do) right now will be remembered, and will set the tone for when things return to “normal.”

If you’ve made progress with creating conscious inclusion in your team or organization, continue to hold yourself and others accountable for checking biases and actively promoting better decision making. The investment now will pay off in the long run. Don’t let the gains you’ve made start to backslide.

Decide Whether to Pivot or Pause

For the foreseeable future, we are all learning to thrive within the constraints of a “new normal.” Remember that the inclusive leadership practices you enact for the benefit of those around you can also be applied to yourself.

Take a hard look at the “to-do’s” on your plate. Identify your key goals, and align them to the current reality and organizational needs. One-by-one, reflect on what you have set out to do. Go through the process of identifying if you should pivot and try to find an alternative strategy for the time being, or hit the pause button and revisit it later on. Without losing sight of your original intentions, find ways to meaningfully deploy what is most likely to create sustainable change.

The Benefits of Commitment

Here’s the bottom line in the new working environment: the world is in isolation, together, and the brands and the people that sincerely elevate people over profits during this time will be remembered. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution or even a perfect solution, merely showing effort and your commitment to Diversity and Inclusion will go a long way.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius

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