How to Have That Tough Conversation About Diversity and Inclusion
Discussions of challenging topics like diversity and inclusion often shut down before they start. Resolve not to be intimidated.
With the holidays rapidly approaching, it’s a good time to think about getting ahead of your new year’s resolutions. Here’s one: Resolve to finally engage with those difficult conversations you need to have as an organization.
At the top of the list might be the one you need to have about diversity in leadership, because research shows that, at the moment, it’s near the bottom of the list for associations. Anxiety over that discussion can be present even at organizations that have the best intentions. As leadership consultant Daisy Auger-Dominguez recently pointed out in the Harvard Business Review, 27 percent of chief diversity officers still have to make the case for D+I. It’s not hard to imagine what the environment might be like at associations that lack the will or budget for such staffers in the first place.
Auger-Dominguez suggests that fear is the major force behind this resistance, leaving people “paralyzed into inaction.” And part of what’s prompting that fear is a sense that addressing diversity issues means having some uncomfortable conversations. But perhaps the job is easier if you frame the conversation about understanding your organization’s culture, not “fixing a diversity problem.” (Figure that by “you” I mean a white, middle-aged, male executive, though these are difficult conversations for leaders of many backgrounds.)
Some of the questions Auger-Dominguez suggests are meant to expose those cultural rifts. “Do you feel safe enough to take risks at work?” “What voice or what perspective is missing from this conversation?” And the leaders of the organization—the board chair, the CEO—need to be the ones asking those questions, lest they be perceived as inauthentic.
“I’ve led inclusion strategy and learning discussions at startups after which founders express dismay that their leadership teams did not participate more actively,” Auger-Dominguez writes. “If you want your team to stand up for inclusion, you need to stand up.”
What you might hear when you ask those questions is that your organization is cultivating an environment where many feel like they’re kept at arm’s length. Writing last week in Forbes, corporate consultant Tanya Meck argues that one reason why women are underrepresented in the corporate C-suite is that companies discount the skill sets that, rightly or wrongly, have been connected to women leaders.
“Conventional wisdom says women must continue to move closer to men’s leadership styles to climb the corporate ladder,” she writes. “That’s outdated thinking. The skills and attributes typically associated with women—collaboration, inclusiveness, team-building, credit-sharing, conflict resolution—are actually what I believe corporations need to keep pace with changing social mores and priorities.”
You may believe your association already possesses that culture. If so, there need be no fear in opening a conversation about it. Given the extremely low percentage of women serving as board chairs—just 4.4 percent, according to one recent survey—it’s a conversation worth having.
And it needn’t be fraught and tormented, but rather simply a discussion based in better understanding of where you’ve been and where you’re trying to get to. One association built that conversation around its recent centennial, and raising the questions out loud can be a powerful motivator for your organization to commit to it. As Meck points in the context of gender parity, “Once you say it, you’ll be held accountable and much more likely to make progress.”
It’s no different than that new year’s resolution you’ve drawn up—except that this one can make a positive change for your association.
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