As an independent practitioner in diversity and inclusiveness and effective communication, I get a variety of calls. Some come from organizations that have a “diversity problem,” while others have a “communication issue.” I always do some assessment to uncover the root cause, and it’s not always what the client thinks.
One client presented a fairly typical diversity problem, which I’ll call Scenario A. It’s a medium-sized organization that serves clients with a variety of life challenges. It enjoys a good reputation in the community and has many longtime employees. Lately, staff has expressed anger about the Christmas party being taken away, and a few are also claiming they are mistreated due to their race. The employee demographics are strikingly representative of the population served, and the organization has a stated commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Another client presented a communication problem which I will call Scenario B. It’s a team within a larger organization tasked with producing essential measurable results and innovative solutions to clients’ problems. The manager has been in her position for a few years, and has the support of her director. However, there are three different factions on the team whose poor communication is harming productivity as well as morale, and two of the best employees are threatening to quit.
In working with D&I, communication and leadership, most root causes of people problems — and effective solutions — involve all three, but to varying degrees. Scenario A turned out to be primarily a communication issue with D&I elements. The reasons the Christmas party was “taken away,” the precipitating events, and how the decision was made were not communicated clearly, effectively nor immediately to all staff. Lack of complete, specific information and no effective dialogue contributed to the accusations of racial mistreatment. Teams and organizations with chronic communication issues often end up having diversity problems not only because communication styles, methods and content impact different identity groups differently, but this impact is often (unintentionally) inequitable, putting historically underrepresented and less powerful groups in more vulnerable positions, or more susceptible to unfavorable interpretations of the situation.
Scenario B turned out to be a diversity problem exacerbated by poor communication. The manager was white and her team was majority people of color and male. The manager’s conscious and unconscious negative biases were showing up in her inequitable staffing decisions, inconsistent performance reviews, inappropriate comments in staff meetings and policy violations. Teams and organizations with equity and inclusion issues almost always have an element of poor communication that expresses and exacerbates the diversity problem or a lack of communication about diversity problems as they manifest.
In both scenarios, as in most diversity problem and communication issue situations, there was also a leadership gap. In scenario A, leadership contributed by making a quick, executive decision about the Christmas party instead of calmly exploring creative options to a real problem of inclusiveness through collaboration with staff. Leadership exacerbated the problem of racial mistreatment claims by not taking them seriously right away and holding the appropriate parties accountable to policy. In scenario B, the director neglected to mentor the manager properly, or hold her accountable for her behavior and her poor results. He blindly deferred to her, inadequately addressing her staff’s concerns when she was unresponsive or abusive. Also, no one was holding the director accountable for his lack of effective leadership.
While corporate executives are typically savvy enough to not promote someone into a senior finance position without proper training and expertise, and hospitals are savvy enough to not expect someone without medical training and completed residency to perform surgery, we often expect leaders to lead, communicate effectively and create inclusive environments without adequate training, experience and mentoring in those areas — even though such skills are just as complex and essential as other business functions! The resulting costs are high, not just for those leaders but for their people, the results they are tasked to produce and the bottom line. The good news is these skills are all learnable, and organizations dedicated to excellence invest the necessary time and resources to ensure leaders and all employees are equipped to communicate and lead effectively and inclusively.