The Collision Theory of Employee Resource Groups

Diversity and inclusion was always important, but now it’s hot, meaning that people are paying attention to it like never before. Senior executives are looking to diversify their teams and boards, while D&I professionals are striving to find the best way to engage employees, educate them, and ultimately change their behavior. 

That’s where employee resource groups (ERGs) have come in. Through trial and error, employers are discovering that ERGs can make D&I goals a reality faster than many other initiatives. 

Like D&I initiatives, ERGs are also not new. Their roots are in the 1960s race riots in Rochester, N.Y. Back then, the CEO of Xerox decided that he wanted to do something to address racial equality, so he initiated what was then called the Black Caucus. From there, such efforts came to be known as affinity groups, then employee resource groups. Now there are even more custom names: business networks, business resource groups, etc. 

Based on a long-term study of ERGs that I’ve been doing, utilizing multiple sets from over 100 companies, I can say with confidence that being in an ERG has positive impacts on individual employee attitudes and behaviors, as well as how teams work together. All of which often impacts customer acquisition and retention, while trickling down to bottom-line business results. 

Energy at Work

I’ve been studying energy for many years and looking at the energy patterns of employees as they join and work in their ERGs. Here are some comments from ERG members about how their ERG is impacting their own personal energy at work:

  • My ERG reminds me to stay vigilant about welcoming colleagues of all cultures and backgrounds into the company family as equals.
  • It gives me hope that organizations are progressing toward greater fairness and open mindedness, and that I will be able to work with a diverse range of people.
  • Just knowing that there is a group that values me outside my own department is inspiring and enabling for my work efforts. It is important to me to feel valued. 
  • Knowing that I have connections outside of my own area helps me put in extra effort so that I have accomplishments that I can share outside of my area.
  • The ERG gives me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences and behaviors, as well as meet people to feel re-energized. The happiness and positivity of others motivates me.
  • The ERGs are one of the things that give me the very most energy at work. They are the one part of my job that I love.

The Collision Theory of ERGs

In chemistry, collision theory states that molecules must collide to get a reaction. Moreover, it takes energy to collide. By examining employee energy at work within ERGs, I propose the Collision Theory of ERGs. Here’s how it works:

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  • Behavior change is required for any organization that wants to embrace belonging, inclusion, equity, and in many cases equality. 
  • Behavior change requires a realization that a behavior does, indeed, need changing. 
  • Realization moments come from collisions.  
  • Collisions are personal experiences that an individual has when meeting, working, or interacting with someone who is new and whom that person would characterize as someone different from them. 
  • Collisions jolt individuals, zapping them into awareness (e.g., “I didn’t realize you were so much like me”). These small moments activate energy. Most importantly, they force an examination of past behavior that leads to reflection and new behavioral changes. 

ERGs Form Based on Similarities, Not Differences 

Here’s the funny thing about ERGs that is very counterintuitive: People join ERGs to be with others like them. Thus, one may wonder, Where’s the collision? 

They aren’t really in the ERG so much as inspired by being in the ERG: When people join ERGs, their confidence increases. As confidence increases, individuals are more willing to take chances. For example, members may go to meetings they did not attend in the past or perhaps take on a leadership role, resulting in involvement in new situations. 

Additionally, as an ERG’s members get more engaged, they are in situations within the overall organizational ERG community that involve engaging with members of other ERGs. These new interactions can be characterized as collisions. Thus, the Collision Theory of ERGs has two parts: 

  1. Within an ERG as members gain confidence.
  2. Across ERGs, as members engage in activities with people from a variety of ERGs to create collisions

Organizations interested in helping employees change behavior can learn from the ERG process. The Collision Theory of ERGs suggests that creating situations where people collide, just like molecules, has the potential to provide the spark or energy needed to reflect, learn, and change behavior. 

Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne is the founder, president, and CEO of eePulse, Inc., a human capital technology and consulting firm. Dr. Welbourne’s expertise is in the areas of leadership and human capital management in high growth and high-change organizations. She has a large body of work on initial public offerings; in addition, she works in the areas of employee energy and engagement as well as managing a large project on employee resource groups (ERGs). Theresa also holds an appointment as an affiliated senior research scientist with the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations. She also is Executive Director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute as well as the Will and Maggie Brooke Professor in Entrepreneurship at the Culverhouse College of Business.

Dr. Welbourne’s research and work have been featured in popular publications such as Inc. Magazine, Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Business Week, New York Times, and Entrepreneur Magazine and published in books and in journals such as the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Strategic Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Leader to Leader and Organization Dynamics.  Theresa is a prolific writer, well known speaker, and she focuses on turning rigorous research into practical tools that are being used by organizations around the world.  Theresa was awarded the 2012 Academy of Management Distinguished HR Executive Award (for contributions in research, teaching and practice).  She was named a Top Technology Trendsetter in 2014 by Survey Magazine, and in 2017 she was inducted as a Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP) fellow.