Assumption is the mother of unsafe organizational culture

Remember that saying: “When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” That is something that we should all keep in mind in relation to our colleagues.

Hand to your heart – what assumptions do you make when you meet a new person in a work setting?

Do you assume they are heterosexual or cisgender?

Do you make assumptions based on their name or skin color?

Do you assume that they share your lifestyle?

It is very human to think of yourself as someone who has typical tastes, beliefs or lifestyle. There is something very comforting in a sense of belonging, when you can rest assured that people around you share similar values and preferences.

But think for a moment: what would it feel like to be in an environment where every day you would be constantly reminded that you DON’T belong? That you are somehow fundamentally different from everyone around you. That you perhaps try your best to keep your difference a secret so as to not stand out in a negative way.

Sounds extremely stressful, no?

In an organizational culture with a very strong implicit assumption of homogeneity – that is, when people automatically assume that their colleagues are similar to themselves – people who do not conform may feel very unsafe.

And when you feel unsafe and stressed and like a weirdo, it is difficult to put in your best work performance. What’s more, a homogeneous organization culture does not foster creativity, new ideas or critical thinking.

This is why it is extremely important to make a conscious, organization-wide effort to embrace diversity. When people feel safe to be their authentic selves, they have more energy to put in their actual work.

So, enough with the assumptions. 

Diversity is a sustainability matter

It being Pride month and all, I think it’s a good time to point out that sustainability in a business setting is not just about emission reductions and scope 1–3.

Social sustainability is just as important. And how a company addresses diversity can be quite revealing as to their dedication to social sustainability.

It’s about who gets hired, promoted, rewarded – and who doesn’t. It’s about who can feel safe, accepted and appreciated in the workplace. It’s about which kind of background and expertise is valued.

Look around you. What are your team members like? What about your peers? Are they all pretty much like you? Do you know anyone at your workplace who belongs to a minority? Or are you the only stand-out different person? 

If the above sounds familiar, your company is not making a conscious effort to promote diversity.

For managers, diversity can be particularly tough, because truly embracing and promoting it often means having to manage a personal change process. Learning to recognise one’s own privilege. Understanding and letting go of personal prejudices. Tolerating discomfort. Looking beyond the obvious.

Embarking on that change process is well worth it, though. Promoting and embracing diversity in the workplace is about giving more people the chance to thrive. But it’s also about giving the business a chance to thrive. There is plenty of international research evidence showing that companies with a more diverse workforce and management generally perform better than more homogeneous ones.

So, there really isn’t any excuse for managers to disregard diversity – not from a sustainability standpoint, nor from a business one. It’s time to step up.

There’s no shortcut to change

For leaders and managers, change can be a bitch. People tend to be reluctant to change, and it is frustrating trying to get everyone on board.

Communicators are often bombarded by managers who want a simple and effective communication solution. Something to convince all stubborn naysayers to embrace change and all the possibilities it can bring.

Well, I have bad news for you: Such a solution does not exist.

Managing change is about managing people, and that requires a lot of dialogue. In a change process, a leader’s most important task is to help people make sense of things. Help them understand how the change will affect them personally. Alleviate their fears.

In order to do that, leaders first need to make sense of it all for themselves. That is not something that communications could do for them.

Becoming more sustainable entails all kinds of change. And because our brains are wired to be suspicious of change, many are suspicious about sustainability by association.

Like in any situation that requires change, there are no shortcuts to getting people to embrace sustainability. Unfortunately we will have to get there the hard way. With persistence, patience and a whole lot of dialogue.

In coming posts I will look more closely at why change is so difficult and how we can help people get past the difficulty. Stay tuned!

Why we need to talk more about people when we talk about climate change

I think we need to talk more about people when we talk about climate change.

There are some recurring points of view in the climate discussion:

1. Technological solutions: “Let’s build more wind power, let’s make more electric cars, let’s replace plastics with biomaterials,” and so on.

2. Scientific data: “The latest IPCC report says that we’re doomed.”

3. Putting the blame on consumers: “People need to stop flying and eating beef and driving cars.”

4. Accusing politicians and/or big corporations: “The world is burning and yet they’re giving more permits to new coal-fired power plants.”

All of these points of view are necessary, and it’s good that all this discussion exists.  However, they are missing one crucial piece of the puzzle: the human element.

There is an enormous amount of research and data about how the human mind works, what motivates people, how people make decisions, and how we interact in smaller and larger groups.

And yet, for some reason, all this data goes out the window when the discussion turns to climate change.

We forget that humans are messy, insecure, illogical, and driven by emotions and primal needs for sustenance, comfort and belonging.

No technological solution will save the planet, if it is not first accepted by people. No amount of data will persuade people to change their preferences and behaviors, if we do not appeal to their emotions and primal needs. Every politician, every CEO is a human with human emotions, fears and impulses. And so is every citizen, every consumer.

To stop the climate from changing, we need to motivate people to change. And that’s why we need to talk more about people when we talk about climate change.