Great culture is at the top of every organization’s checklist; so is diversity. But can the two work together?
It’s a good question. Culture tends to govern the way companies hire and operate. But the very nature of seeking cultural conformity can threaten inclusion.
Creating a truly inclusive organization requires a careful approach to culture that avoids traps that can lead to homogeny.
What do those traps look like?
Caution #1 “The Monolith”
Many organizational leaders have gotten the message that they should have one culture that permeates all aspects of the organization. But people don’t naturally exist in a monolith. Wherever there is culture, there are naturally emerging subcultures and countercultures. And in fact, such countercultures have been the source of a great deal of progress in societies over time.
Tightly conceived cultures can lose those potential contributions, creating the unintentional side effect of becoming stagnant and exclusive. One senior leader at an organization known for its well-regarded culture talked recently about the fact that certain attributes – specifically her company’s touchy-feely nature – might be uncomfortable for employees in specialties such as IT and finance. “We have a strong and positive culture here,” she says, “but to be honest I think it’s keeping us from hiring and retaining certain skill sets.”
Even positive attributes can feel exclusive. A culture that obsesses over athleticism, for example, might make people with health challenges feel like they’ll never belong.
“Our culture is very strong,” agrees one very successful leader. Despite more than ten years with her company and a successful corporate ascent that led her from lower levels to the C suite, “It can feel a little like you’re in or you’re out. And to be honest I’ve never really known which I am.”
Culture should feel open-bordered and have some variation within it. We don’t want it to feel like a template everybody needs to squeeze themselves into. Rather, when we expect differences, we send the message that we welcome diverse perspectives.
Caution #2 “How We Do Things”
Great cultures shouldn’t force us into a box. But a commonly adopted definition of culture, as stated by Webster (“A way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization”) has the potential to work against diversity.
Yet many organizations approach culture this way, defining it as, “The way we do things around here.”
The side effects of that can be costly. Innovation (and so progress) requires a diversity of thought and perspective in which all ideas are valued. Problem solving requires openness that considers multiple solutions. So, a “one-way” approach in which it is suggested that everyone think, work, and behave the same way, can work directly against an organization’s goals for diversity, innovation and progress.
Truly diverse cultures demonstrate that multiple approaches are welcomed; they show that new methods and ideas, even if unconventional, are taken seriously.
Culture is not a tool to get people to behave in certain ways. When it’s used as such, it hurts the organization by denying it of the unique and authentic contributions members would make in a less prescriptive environment.
Caution #3 “Hiring for fit”
Pandora recently announced they would hired for culture “add” instead of “fit.” This is a much better approach. “Fit” implies homogeny (people who look, act, and think like we do) “Fit” deprives our organizations of the added perspective we could gain by hiring someone different.
“Hiring for add” also communicates to existing employees that we have a commitment to welcoming diversity. We should be explicit in communicating how we value the perspectives that arise from different backgrounds and life experiences. This will free all employees to speak their views more comfortably.
Culture: Some Final Notes
Can culture and diversity exist together? Absolutely. But we have to change the way we think about it.
For starters, leadership itself needs to diversify. However well intentioned, homogenous leadership lacks the perspective to understand how their prescriptions can exclude. Worse, a group of professionals who share a similar background don’t always realize that their language and actions can feel foreign – like a secret handshake – to those from different backgrounds. Diversifying perspective at the top will not only remove those boundaries, it will also provide a model for the rest of the company.
To invite truly inclusive organizations, we need to give up the ideas of “one culture,” “the way we do things” and “hiring for fit,” and instead open our doors to diversity of perspective, background, and thought.
Lucy English, PhD is a sociologist and the Managing Director of Institutional Research at Bright Horizons. She is an expert in work-family practices and employee well-being. Lucy is the mother of two boys and the author of Penny Wade Mysteries. Follow her on LinkedIn here.