No matter how strong an organization’s pledge to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, until leadership identifies and addresses the attitudes, practices, and beliefs that underlie the company culture, there won’t be any real progress.
That’s where a culture audit can help.
“A culture audit allows organizations and their departments to identify what I call the ‘stuck places’ — those elements of business culture that pose barriers to DEI goals,” writes MIT Sloan lecturer
Lazu is a former Berkshire Bank executive vice president. In her current role at MIT Sloan, she focuses on inclusion in the innovation economy. She is also the founder and CEO of consulting firm The Lazu Group.
In this excerpt from her new book, “From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Lazu identifies seven attitudes and assumptions an organization might find during a culture audit and shares three processes for building a curious, empathic organizational culture.
The excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Based on the many culture audits our firm has conducted, some of the more common findings include attitudes, written and unwritten practices, conscious and unconscious biases, and beliefs about “how things get done” that define the culture more tangibly than all the mission and vision statements combined. Until these factors are unearthed and addressed, real progress on DEI will not be possible. Below are several of the attitudes and assumptions that we have encountered in culture audits with our clients.
1. Seeing DEI as charity.
DEI is not charity; it is a smart business choice. Many people of color within an organization are overqualified for the positions they hold because of bias that keeps them from being promoted into positions of greater responsibility. Second, diverse teams build value and increase the profitability of companies by expanding viewpoints and perspectives and, as a result, becoming more innovative; in short, diversity has been proven to be good for business. Therefore, the very question of qualification is steeped in white privilege and the assumption that there are no diverse candidates that could be better than the white employees who are already in the company.
2. Saying you’re committed but not buying into the steps it takes to change.
Very few people will disagree with the statement that everyone deserves a fair shake. But when you actually start changing policy and tying DEI progress to budgets, the mood within a company shifts perceptibly. All of a sudden, fairness feels unfair and is now a breeding ground for conflict. Saying we are going to interview more women suddenly gets interpreted as women getting “special treatment,” ignoring the special treatment men have had for centuries in the workplace. When someone is privileged, fairness feels like getting less. But that’s only the perception as shifts happen within a company committing to greater fairness and balance.
3. Resistant middle management.
In our employee work, managers are the most common reasons people feel that they belong or don’t belong at a company. It’s not enough for the C-suite to care; middle managers also have to, in both their words and actions. Regardless of what CEOs say at town halls, it’s the middle managers and team managers who are the arbiters of company culture every day. They translate the culture, hold the careers of employees in their hands, and are some of the hungriest to get to the top, while often feeling the most betrayed. These are people who harbor thoughts such as having “dedicated my life to a company just to be told I was passed over for a promotion by a woman.” Two effective solutions are DEI training for middle management and a willingness to let go any middle managers who refuse to buy in.
4. The false belief that being a high performer makes you a good manager.
The label “high performer” puts an emphasis on sales or profitability, but being a high earner for the company does not mean someone can manage a team of people and lead them to also become high performers. Individual success does not equate with good management. It’s important to have emotional intelligence standards for managers and introduce them to the concept that it’s not enough to make money for the company; managers must also contribute positively to a diverse work culture.
5. Succession plans that do little to change the status quo.
A function of good leadership for any company is ensuring quality leaders are developed, whether for the next few years or the next generation. Therefore, companies that commit to seeking diversity and promoting DEI need to look very closely at their succession plans to see how many open seats they realistically will have at the highest level. Then they need to ask themselves, who is being groomed to occupy these positions? If diverse talent is not identified early and groomed for advancement as part of succession planning, then very little will change within an organization’s culture or its composition.
6. No budget, no time.
Show me your calendar and budget, and I will tell you what you care about. Thinking you can solve your DEI problem without spending money is quixotic. Yet time and time again, companies will try to do just that: change their culture to become more inclusive without making an investment to do so. Just think how much money and time your company has spent creating the culture it has currently, spending on management programs, performance evaluations, bonuses, and even office space. It’s important to be open to spending money and giving your company time to learn, practice, and create new cultural norms. However, just throwing money at the problem is a surefire way to fail, and uninformed action can be dangerous.
7. The exhaustion of people of color, especially Black people.
A company’s commitment to DEI also must take into account that people of color, especially Black people, are already tired from the daily experience of being an excluded class. When looking at DEI efforts for a company, it’s important that there be a reparative element for the people of color who are already in your company. Such efforts should recognize what they have been navigating in the current work culture.
The 3 L’s
Embracing the three L’s will help create a culture that is open to difference, curious about change, and loving toward others.
Listen — This is the catchup work or the prework. People must engage in this on their own in order to develop at least some situational awareness. Listening also helps people avoid faux pas in speaking and interacting with others. Listening helps people learn the norms and social mores so that they can catch up on DEI without stumbling out of the gate.
Learn — Once people have spent some time listening, they have prepared themselves to learn in a respectful and informed way. They can begin to interact with communities to learn in real time how to be an ally. Rather than asking people of color to respond to your plan, find out how you can support their plan. People can learn wrong things, so understanding what the actual community says helps establish a basis for where and how to learn.
Love — Taking loving action ensures that the work organizations are doing will be well received and relevant to the communities they hope to include. It builds generosity of interpretation and will help every action be authentic, not hypocritical.
Excerpted from “From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” by Malia C. Lazu. Copyright © 2024 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reprinted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved.