Tag Archives: Diversity

Oral tradition and written word in the workplace

Bloomberg published a fascinating article on a potential transition from society’s reliance on the written word to a society that works more heavily in spoken word (e.g. Post-literate) even if that “spoken word” is actually written in short burst (e.g. tweets).

Thankfully, no organization has to manage the breadth of diversity and divisiveness that exists today in the United States, but it is worth looking at the interplay between spoken and written word in providing the context for the working environment (e.g. corporate culture). The Bloomberg article identifies ways to make the most of a primarily oral environment (and how Donald Trump used these so effectively):

  1. Use tightly descriptive language (e.g. Crooked Hillary);
  2. Be redundant and repetitive (e.g. “I am a leader. I am a leader. I lead people,” etc.); and
  3. Engage in reflexive debate (e.g. “You’re the puppet!”).

To the first point, any workplace teems with acronyms and lingo that can convey a great deal of information quickly. We are also quick to hammer such mantras as “we are here for our customers” or “we have to be patient-centred.” Reflexive debate may be visible in more formal meeting environments or can also take place between two people behind closed doors. Unfortunately, such quips are also part of corrosive e-mail chains. The manner in which an organizational culture allows such “debates” can be defining of the work environment.

On the other side of the divide, the written word provides the luxury of being able to reference (rather than simply recall) decisions that we have made, policy that we have crafted and lessons that we have learned. In written documentation, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to fully explore a nuanced space, for example, we can describe exactly what “customer-centric decision making” entails beyond the tagline that “the customer is always right.” Further benefits of written communication come to bear when we make such content widely available, which can promote transparency beyond the group that is directly involved.

Technology has given us excellent solutions for availability. Accessibility may provide the biggest challenge for workplace policies and procedures. The written documents become very important in dealing with such issues as compliance, governance and litigation. The expectations of these areas tend to pull us away from being “widely accessible.”

NOTE: I was recently exposed to the acronym RTFM (Read the F@#%!*@g Manual) or RTFI (Read the F@#%!*@g Intranet). The predictable “oral response” to this written barb is: Make Your F@#%!*@g Manuals More Accessible (MTFMMA).

Discussion and dialogue are the means of collaboration that are most familiar and effective. In today’s work world, “oral” may not mean just spoken (think “chat” or informal e-mail discussions). The Bloomberg article references Marshall McLuhan’s edict “The medium is the message.” In a workplace, one can expect a blending of media and messages. The written reflexive debate can get ugly very quickly. As an example (ironically), have a look at the written “oral” comments at the bottom of that Bloomberg article.

We have a diversity problem? Who says?

Earlier this month, Chris MacDonald wrote about diversity programs and why they fail. The list of reasons includes breeding resentment toward the marginalized group for causing additional work.

Why corporate diversity programs fail, and what to do about it

This very realistic (and wholly unintended) consequence is textbook irony. Those attached to an initiative that goes sideways in this manner will exhaust all credibility in affecting future cultural shifts in their organization. This is the danger when efforts are made to solve a “problem” that has yet to be defined and properly contextualized.

Lots of aspirational words drive efforts to change a culture: innovation, efficiency, collaboration, accountability and, of course, diversity. Each of these aspirational (and metaphorical) sticks has a wrong end that is easily grasped. It is well worth taking a step back to ask some critical questions about the current state before launching your program to increase <<insert aspirational noun>>.

If you think your organization has a diversity problem (or, has an opportunity to improve its diversity), go through the exercise of making the case to someone who says to you: “Problem? What problem?”

Are you…

  • In a knowledge-driven industry? Diversity in approach among your staff will drive better insights.
  • Afraid of not complying to regulations? Get out in front of this one.
  • Embroiled in the war on talent? A focus on diversity might boost your Glassdoor reputation.
  • Seeing well-heeled competitors poach your top-talent? Earn loyalty by doing the right thing.

A word of caution:

“The right thing” is in the eye of the beholder. You may run into leaders who feels that, for example, earning loyalty from our employees does not justify the time, energy, dollars, risk, etc. of the investment in your initiative. Such push back may reveal some pervasive cultural attitudes toward employees. As one of those employees, rather than affect the culture, you may rethink your decision to continue working there.





Diversity Boxes – ticking and talking

The Schumpeter column of The Economist took a run at diversity this week with the hypothesis that fatigue is big part of the problem. This fatigue appears to take different forms:

  • We hear about it far too much (Enough already!)
  • We hear about it but nothing changes (Not enough yet!)
  • We hear about it but what does it really mean (When is enough enough?!)

A look at the article’s comments section (which is always a dangerous move), reveals everything you need to know about the multitude of issues attached to the surprisingly complex word. Doubts and critiques expose some deep philosophical questions, as well as some statements that one is surprised to see in a written format (or not surprised, if you tend to read the comments section of publications).

A couple of things are clear about diversity:

  1. This idea has been getting attention of late. (I recall a similar trend bubbled up around the multi-generational workforce in the last decade or so. Maybe this, too, will pass or linger.)
  2. The word has many different interpretations and understandings
  3. Consistent with 2, ideas vary on whether an organization needs it and, if so, how best to get it.

One of the ideas that the article attacks is diversity as a “tick-the-box activity. Fittingly, differing narratives surrounding “diversity” brings one critique that states the box-ticking organizations actually deserve credit because at least they are doing something!

Is it reasonable to say that the merits of box-ticking depends on the contents of the box?

There may be some consensus that filling the ranks with “the token [insert statistically under represented group member]” probably doesn’t work for anyone. (But I can imagine being challenged on that statement.) So, we should stay away from those kind of boxes.

Similarly, awareness building (especially when the topic is on heavy rotation in media) can also wear thin. So, maybe it’s not enough to “tick the box” on the Diversity Lunch & Learns.

If we are trying to prevent an over-reliance on predictable cognitive biases in important decisions, maybe we can tick the box on the presence of such initiatives as:

  • panel interviews for new hires
  • formal meetings of the senior leadership team to discuss and determine merit bonuses for employees above a certain level
  • determining tangible indicators to test the connection between our idea of diversity and our idea of performance

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it a collection of best practices. Well-intended efforts to “do the right thing” can quickly get lost in the contentious world-view debates that risks making the situation worse. We are convinced in the merits of digging into an idea like diversity to understand how it fits into the business and find some clear ways to track the progress of distinct efforts even if that means ticking some boxes… but only the good boxes.