By Andrea Bowens-Jones and Joanne Esch
Workplace shakeups provide unique opportunities to shape culture. Here’s how to elevate inclusion in times of rapid change.
A look back at the headlines about the workplace over the course of 2022, particularly in the tech industry, is a bit dizzying– from great resignation to quiet quitting to layoffs and bracing for recession. Workplace shakeups–whether in the form of rapid growth, downsizing, re-orgs, mergers, acquisitions, or global shifts–are times of cultural flux and, usually, anxiety. During these times, companies risk losing ground on diversity, equity, and inclusion as an overwhelming mix of demands and emotions compete for their time and energy. However, because shake ups are times of rapid change, they are also pivotal opportunities to change cultures for the better. There is a lot we can do to elevate respect and inclusion during times of uncertainty—and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Sharpening our communication competencies and practicing some basic habits, for example, can make a big difference in our relationships and workplace cultures.
The cultural and psychological impacts of shakeups vary, with layoffs obviously being the most adverse. But even positive changes, like rapid growth, come with stress and uncertainty. Major changes in how, where, and with whom we work cause a renegotiation of the unwritten rules of the workplace, including informal power and status arrangements. Cultures will evolve at times like these, either by design or default. For this reason, shakeups are precisely the moments when inclusive culture work can have the biggest impact. While formal initiatives may not be feasible at these times, individuals, managers, and leaders can still elevate inclusion by starting with the basic principle of respect.
In an NCWIT Conversation for Change, author Paul Marciano explained, “when you are respected, it means you are recognized as having value to your community or organization.” Being expendable is the opposite, which is why people’s sense of being respected is at risk during shakeups.
Although respect is especially vulnerable during shakeups, most leaders will operate at a normal respect level without discussing it much or focusing explicitly on culture. However, during rapid change, discussions about culture, trust and respect need to be intentional. As simple as this sounds, it not the norm and can be uncomfortable.
How to Have Better Conversations about Inclusion and Respect
Cultures of trust, respect, and inclusion (or their opposites) are accomplished in and through communication–ranging from everyday, mundane interactions and norms (e.g., in meetings, slack, email, texts) to formal organizational texts, policies, and procedures. So intentionally shaping cultures requires metacommunication—that is, communication about communication.
We metacommunicate constantly, in ways both trivial and potentially transformative. Consider these examples:
“Process point—are we brainstorming right now or evaluating ideas?”
“Are you open to some feedback?”
“What did you mean when you said…?”
“Jess, you unmuted earlier—were you wanting to add something?”
“I’m looping Gina in on this conversation”
As mundane as they seem, metacommunicative moments like these do important work. They can make the implicit explicit, clarify goals and intentions, and interrupt bias or exclusion. At a deeper level, metacommunication encompasses reflexive conversations that align practices with values. These might begin with questions like, “is this process working for everyone?” “What voices are missing from this conversation?” or “What criteria are we using to identify high potential talent?”
Metacommunication is the motor that propels culture change. Teams that metacommunicate frequently and effectively are better prepared to navigate challenges and maintain inclusive cultures. The right structures and norms can lower the social and emotional barriers to discussing problems when they arise. However, a blanket call for “direct and open communication” is unlikely to work as intended.
While declaring an “open-door policy” or a preference for “direct conflict resolution” may seem like a straightforward solution, it does not effectively address power differentials. This approach places the burden of addressing difficult topics on others—often those with less power. For leaders and managers, it’s crucial to acknowledge and mitigate the risks of speaking up and to take ownership for creating a respectful and inclusive workplace, rather than relying on others to raise sensitive topics.
In addition to acknowledging the power relations inherent in organizational hierarchies, it is important to recognize that workplace politics are more complex for historically marginalized groups. Stereotype-based expectations for behavior create double binds for women and people of color. Direct or assertive communication is expected from historically high-status groups, like white men, and thus is more often interpreted positively. Historically lower-status groups—such as women and people of color—who are expected to be cooperative and humble, face criticism for violating these expectations. Women and people of color are more likely to be labeled “hostile” or “emotional” when they have disagreements with coworkers. And Black people, in particular, report having to walk on eggshells to avoid being called angry or aggressive. In short, speaking up directly is seen as normal for white men but presents a tedious tangle of dilemmas for other groups. These complexities raise the personal costs and risks of speaking up when one’s needs aren’t being met.
Fortunately, there are some simple practices that can make it easier for everyone to have meaningful conversations about respect and workplace culture.
- Invite and normalize these conversations. It is easier to talk about cultural and interpersonal dynamics when there is an occasion and invitation to do so, which establishes a venue in which it is clearly appropriate to talk about these things. People need to be able to raise these topics without compromising their sense of professional boundaries. To avoid the “it’s-on-you-to-speak-up-if-you-have-a-problem” effect, offer invitations periodically. For example, some teams set aside time in a quarterly meeting to discuss culture.
- Recognize the value of small check-ins. Small acts of outreach—like checking in, acknowledging a challenge, celebrating an achievement, sharing some interesting tidbit—often mean more than we realize. These little things cost nothing and help build trust and strengthen relationships. Don’t worry too much about finding the right words—research suggests that people are more focused on the prosocial intent of these little acts of outreach than on the content.
- Let people know you value them. Express your appreciation rather than assuming people know you value them. A 2018 study asked people to write a gratitude letter and guess how the recipient would feel about it. People consistently overestimated how awkward it would make the other person feel and underestimated how happy it would make them.
- Understand the limits of “direct” or “open” communication. As previously discussed, there are many reasons people don’t speak up when their needs for respect or inclusion aren’t being met. Acknowledging the risks, offering invitations and normalizing conversations about culture can make it easier.
- Don’t dismiss formal venues. Formal policies and structures—such as grievance processes, employee assistance programs, conflict resolution resources and climate surveys—may not be the first things that come to mind when you think about cultures of respect. But in the absence of these, all the pressure falls on interpersonal relationships. These venues give people more resources and options to resolving their concerns while having additional layers of accountability.
- Use enabling structures. An enabling structure provides guidance around topics, processes, and expectations for a discussion. Examples include agendas with clear outcomes, facilitation structures and strategies, discussion guides, question lists, and research or other content to spark discussion.
NCWIT provides many resources to support productive conversations about workplace culture. These include:
- Guidance about what to talk about when building inclusive culture (Change Model, TIJ, Powertilt)
- Conversation prompts and activities (scenario grid, critical listening guide, TIJ facilitation guide)
- Manager tools (supervisor-in-a-box series)
- Stepwise processes (TIJ, Powertilt)
- Ambassadors: Skills training and topics for critical conversations
These tools are grounded in social science research and are designed to balance structure with flexibility. Unsure where to start? Contact us at [email protected].
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 77–83.
Wojciszke, B. (1994). Multiple meanings of behavior: Con-struing actions in terms of competence or morality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 222–232.