In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Elisabeth Kelan writes about “gender fatigue,” which she describes as the phenomenon of people acknowledging that gender inequality exists in general, but not in their workplace.
Lots of people, it seems, are all for gender equity, inclusion, and a diverse workforce. Yet, it is just not happening.
It reminded me about the work we do to help them change gender relationships in organizations. We are corporate anthropologists who specialize in helping organizations, and the people within them, do what they really hate to do — namely, change. Fatigue is a great word to capture the challenges that people have when it is time for them to change. They can tell you what must change, who has to change, and even by when they should change. Watch carefully as the time arrives and little is changed. There is a great quote about this: “I am all for change, just don’t change me!”
This is going to have to change if we are going to bring a diverse workforce together. That inclusive and equitable workforce is essential for our organizations if we are going to capitalize on the power of cognitive and gender diversity. It is urgently needed to benefit from the talent brought to organizations by women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
We better make it easier for them to do what their brain protects them from doing, scrapping the well-honed habits and “truths” of yesterday and creating new ways to see, feel, think, and do for tomorrow.
This is not easy. The brain hates change. So, let’s begin.
First, you must begin to manage your mind. Understand that the brain hates change. Change is literally painful for our brains. Your amygdala protects you by rejecting the unfamiliar and that means you flee, fear, appease, or fight the new and the unknown. If you understand how your brain fights the changes coming, you realize that you have to begin to collaborate with your mind to open it up to new ways of seeing. Understand that you will have to manage your mind and the story it believes to be true.
Second, to change how we see things, we will have to change that story. We begin our work with clients by assessing the stories in their heads today about what is “normal.” You can do this as well. Have your teams write or draw stories about how you do things today. Have them tell you these stories. They will capture their perceptions of their realities as they are today. You will see how they each have a different story, as they almost always do. And those stories are anchoring them in the way their worlds were and limiting their abilities to see what it could become.
Third, what do you “see” for your story tomorrow? Have the team members visualize how they imagine a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization will become in the future. Have them write those visualizations as stories of their futures. Share them. Gather together people at every level of the organization. They must create this shared visualization of a diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) organization and help all individuals say what they are going to do, not someday but the next day. See, believe, act is what we preach.
Fourth, by when will you be living this new story? Once you have those stories with their granular list of actions that you are going to take to get to your visualized future, put a date on them. By when will you have this organization living what you believe to be the future reality you want to create? If you cannot see it, it will not happen. Talk about actual steps you will take.
Fifth, set up small wins. We learn by making the unfamiliar into a familiar new habit. That will only happen if we do something. There must be experiential learning for change to stick. Those small wins are like practice swings. You are going to hit some out of the ballpark. Others are going to fall backwards into what you used to do. You are now in the change zone. You have two choices — accept the failures and fall backwards or rethink your actions and set up another small win. Keep moving forward.
Sixth, change your celebrations. For your imagined reality to come to life requires sharing your stories, rewriting them, celebrating them, and pushing forward again. Make sure you have that visualization of the future everywhere — in pictures, in the new meaning you give your symbols, in videos and in your celebrations. You might even hold a funeral for things you never want to see happen again.
Seventh, pick your heroes carefully. Make your stars people who others want to emulate. Get the right “voices” telling the story you want to hear and listen to them tell those to others at lunch, in the coffee room, and everywhere. Help them lead. They are learning new skills. Get them the coaching they need to sustain your momentum. No need to do it alone.
Like your golf swing, it is a slow process with a lot of practice. Slowly, the change fatigue will turn into the “way we do it here.” You won’t ever arrive. You will have to rethink your on-boarding processes. And look carefully at your recruiters and those who are doing the hiring. All too often, the pool of candidates is fine but those doing the hiring are selecting people who match themselves and are opposed to that diversity that you might be advocating elsewhere in your organization.
Whatever you do, don’t let your brain hijack your vision of a new and better future. It would much rather rest and let the habits and beliefs of the past drive daily life. It is so much easier not to change than to see, feel, and think in new ways so you can do what you and your organization need for a vital, vibrant diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce of the future.
Andi Simon, Ph.D. (www.andisimon.com), author of “Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business,” is a corporate anthropologist and founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants (www.simonassociates.net).