Your 12 step program for organizational culture change

Sandy Burgham
Sandy Burgham | August 01, 2018
Fairness & Inclusion
Your 12 step program for organizational culture change

I was curious when approached to contribute to EX Journal as usually I am banging on about Diversity and Inclusion. Yes, remember that? Or was that “soooo last year”?  Certainly I detect that it’s a lot more fun hanging with the cheery folk chatting about EX. It feels, well, a tad more millennial.

I mean, all this obsessing over diversity statistics has lead to nothing but the jaw-dropping climactic revelation by the WE Forum earlier this year that it will take 217 years for the global gender gap to close. Gosh, what do we do now? Keep talking, shut up, or shift the conversation to EX?  I recommend shifting the conversation, while realizing that the context of employee experience is a workplace where all are treated fairly.

Hence EX, and diversity and inclusion, are actually part of the bigger conversation about culture.

Understanding organizational culture

Most organizations have a low level understanding of culture, assuming it to be ‘how we do things around here’. What is invisible is a system that favors not just men, but the masculinized behaviors associated with success. We cant address this by sending people to a one-day unconscious bias training session to be ‘cured’ (sexism eradicated, inclusive behaviors inserted…job done!). As we have all been encultured into a patriarchal system, we are subconsciously addicted to it and have trouble imagining any other way of being. So what to do?

My close friend is a recovering alcoholic and her experience on the AA’s much heralded 12 Step Program, a hugely difficult journey of transformation that requires daily commitment and self-awareness, inspired me greatly as it required her to address the issue in new and uncomfortable ways. It spurred me to create another 12 step program: one that addresses organizational culture change to ensure a better, fairer future where everyone can flourish at work whatever their gender.

The 12 Step Program

  1. Admit you are powerless in the face of the system that keeps, year after year, losing good women. Admit that the situation has become unmanageable and untenable.
  2. Understand that the issue is not diversity per se, but the culture and the power system that this is an expression of, that has given rise to inequity.
  3. Re-frame diversity and inclusion as a natural outcome of another process, which is about understanding how culture works.
  4. Take a fearless moral inventory of your own, and your organization’s, culture.
  5. Admit and declare that despite your best intentions, things are not that good.
  6. Be up for things to heat up before they cool down. It’s a messy ride.
  7. Humbly announce that you’re not perfect but are willing to have the conversations that count – with yourself and within your organization.
  8. Make a list of women that who have left the organization and talk to them in an open way about what would have made the difference.
  9. Make an explicit effort to promote women, and be brave enough to say that while their gender was part of it, they still are the best person for the job.
  10. Encourage these women to understand that, as much as they want to be promoted on the basis of merit, they probably won’t be. Take it on the chin if gender is part of the mix.
  11. Look to raise the consciousness of leaders who are often not necessarily the most senior people in the organization. This requires you and them to go ‘under the waterline’ to examine not just biases but deeply held beliefs that they assumed were facts.
  12. Spread the word. Tell stories of where you got it wrong, and where you got it right.

Have the hard conversations to improve EX

Every workplace culture has different characteristics, but one thing remains the same – a patriarchal structure that gives a few people a lot of power.  And those in power are often too afraid to open up the conversation about diversity and inclusion as they don’t want to lose power by looking as if they don’t know what to do. They keep obsessively tracking diversity statistics and net promoter scores without inquiring about behaviors that are favored, and those that are ignored or tolerated.  They want hard solutions, but they avoid the hard conversations. If they lift the lid on those conversations they might realize that culture is not the way we do things around here but the way they allow things to occur.

And this is what employees actually experience.


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