Inclusion fatigue? Have some coffee! How we stimulated diversity discussions at the International Trade Centre by talking to 100 employees.
At the Caribbean region’s recent musical celebration of the United Nation’s 75th Anniversary, Barbadian superstar Rihanna said ‘Diversity is not a weakness!
Today we have to see diversity within the workplace positioned as a source of strength. Whether as a response to a growing evidence base that links workplace diversity and inclusion with improved organizational performance or to larger societal movements, such as Me Too, Pride celebrations or Black Lives Matter, the case for a diverse and inclusive work environment is gaining traction. The United Nations, as a microcosm of our larger world, must also reflect this.
Aspiring to trail blaze this system-wide effort, we at the International Trade Centre (ITC) have developed an ambitious roadmap for gender equality, diversity and inclusion. Over the past years, we have moved towards these targets by strengthening organizational policies, accountability mechanisms and capacity development. Despite such structural improvements, these measures did not always translate directly into a qualitative change in organizational culture. The term “inclusion fatigue”, which refers to the subtle to overt resistance against diversity and inclusion (D&I) practices, has since become indicative of this gap. We understood that to move the needle forward to have the inclusive organizational culture at ITC we want and deserve, we would have to adopt a more creative approach. The idea for “100 Coffees for Inclusion” was born.
The initiative, developed in collaboration with ITC’s Innovation Lab and the ITC Inclusion Group, was launched in August 2020. It aims to increase staff engagement with D&I topics and identify the root causes of inclusion fatigue by creating a direct feedback loop with ITC employees. Over the course of two months, 100 randomly selected ITC employees are matched with D&I focal points and senior leaders for individual, 30 minute coffee conversations. As we come to the close of the challenge, the overall sense is that ITC has walked the talk for diversity and inclusion but that there is always room for improvement.
Here are the five key lessons learned:
It’s as much about the process as it is about the goal
The 100-coffee-initiative allowed us to collect rich data, which will inform future organizational activities and a long-term capacity development plan. Many conversations, for instance, zoomed in on the need to better leverage geographic diversity and the importance of not shying away from difficult conversations around race and negative stereotyping. Encouraging a relationship of genuine inquiry and active listening has fostered a culture of trust and empathy. And through offering employees a dedicated space to voice their personal thoughts and ideas, staff engagement with D&I topics rose to new levels.
Leadership matters- on every level
The majority of employees we talked with looked to the top for direction on organizational culture and practices. Championing diversity and inclusion at the highest level remains key in shaping ITC’s working environment. Yet, transformative change calls for individual agency and leadership on every organizational level. During our coffee conversations, most people were quick to assign D&I responsibilities to senior managers, but organizational messaging must shift towards emphasizing that D&I is a responsibility that is shared by all of us.
A one-size-fits-all-approach won’t do
The 100 coffee format proved successful because it offered a customized response to employees’ personal levels of engagement, knowledge and awareness. This demonstrated the potential of a more targeted approach in future. This could, for instance, translate into tailored initiatives that cater to different target audiences – from senior management training to male engagement approaches, from formal staff talks to informal brainstorming sessions. The more diversified the portfolio of D&I activities, the more it allows for organizational agility to address emerging needs.
Leaning into resistance, embracing discomfort
We realized that “inclusion fatigue” stems from many places. Getting a handle on these issues requires ongoing organizational effort towards participation and dialogue as well as a shift in mind-set.
Difficult conversations are uncomfortable, but they are also indicators of a workplace that prizes open dialogue and wants to provide a safe space free from harassment, bullying, and gas lighting. When approached with curiosity and empathy, these conversations can serve as important sign posts towards lasting organizational change.
Just do (brew?) it
Ultimately, every workplace will have to navigate its own organizational complexities in creating – and sustaining- a momentum for inclusion. But just get the conversation started – one coffee at a time. We have started this dialogue at ITC through a bottom up process of innovation, sharing and collaboration. You can too.