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When companies want to hear from employees, a common reaction is to conduct a survey — wanting to do something, anything, to show the company’s response. It’s not uncommon for a company to get high marks initially for “this is a great place to work” or “everyone has a chance to grow here.” Such responses, however, more often than not reflect employees’ distrust of corporate attempts at feedback gathering, including a disbelief that such surveys really are anonymous. It’s safer to tell the company what it wants to hear; after all, what’s likely to change, anyway?
This is where discovery groups come in. Using an appreciative inquiry process, tapping into strengths to empower people to contribute to positive change, my firm has been conducting discovery groups for companies and organizations. Most recently, we’ve been collaborating with organizations to establish a baseline of feedback and commentary from Black employees and other colleagues of color, as well as stakeholders, who often feel that their voices are not sufficiently heard or valued. After trust has been established — with assurances that responses are anonymized and not even attendance at the sessions will be disclosed — the barriers start coming down. One person after another will open up, sharing personal experiences about what it’s like to work at a particular company, within a specific division, and sometimes for an individual manager. Or, in a different context, people may describe the experience of being a customer, vendor, or other stakeholder. Often, what we hear is that fact-finding and other engagement have felt like a check-the-box exercise rather than a sincere effort to listen.
Discovery groups seek to change that impression by facilitating dialogue and sharing among those gathered together. As one person tells their story, someone else is empowered to do the same. People finally feel it is safe to discuss and disclose how invisible and exhausted they feel, or how hopeless it is to try to get ahead when promotions continually support the status quo. They speak deep, long-held truths.
Discovery groups should not be mistaken for gripe sessions. Rather, they acknowledge that the people closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions. Their storytelling becomes qualitative data that adds depth and nuance to the quantitative data that can be gleaned from employee surveys and workforce statistics. As people drop their armor and become more vulnerable and transparent around their experiences, the company’s culture comes into view. Suddenly, it’s not what the company says it is; rather, it’s what people feel in their day-to-day interactions with managers, colleagues, and customers. By listening, company leaders can acquire the input they need to pursue desired outcomes, including policy changes, retention programs, and product creation.
One set of discovery groups we conducted was designed to hear from stakeholders how they felt about their city and its responsiveness to planning. One of the concepts we wanted to hear about was resiliency. It was going to be a core response for a 21st-century city. When we started to talk about resiliency, we heard from several marginalized communities that the concept of resiliency for them was triggering because it made them recall the constant need for their own social resiliency or the need to be strong. As one person said, “I want my city to help me not have to be resilient.” The comment helped us fully understand how using a word we saw as common nomenclature would not have been as well received as the idea of environmental justice.
The best way to ensure DEI actions are not performative is to undertake actions based on what the excluded groups are asking for, not on what you think they need. Finding ways to do that for both employees and customers will move you closer to impactful DEI work. We see that DEI cannot be performative action alone; rather, it can and should be linked directly to accelerating business performance. This requires a willingness to:
- Reexamine talent recruitment and retention. Without diverse talent, companies will find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand and reach diverse consumers.
- Commit to lasting cultural change that will yield successful engagement with new and existing consumer groups.
- Design, develop, test, and deploy new strategies for product development, marketing, and communication.
Such actions need support from the top in order to gain attention and traction. This will only happen with an engaged CEO who recognizes that racism is pervasive and there are biases everywhere. Acknowledging their privilege is often a stumbling block for many executives, particularly CEOs. Most focus on the hard work they have put in and the sacrifices they have made on their journey to the C-suite. Therefore, they find it difficult to identify any advantages they’ve had or to see themselves as the beneficiaries of any sort of privilege. Yet only by acknowledging how the system has worked in their favor can these leaders identify the impediments to transforming their corporate cultures and doing something about it.
Excerpted from From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, by Malia C. Lazu. Copyright © 2024. Available from MIT Press.