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Why Inclusion is a Leadership Imperative, and More from Dr. Gena Cox

In our recent webinar, Perceptyx Research Director Emily Killham and Gena Cox, Ph.D. — a corporate advisor on issues of workplace DEI and author of the recently released book Leading Inclusion — talked about the critical role of leaders in designing, executing, and modeling inclusion efforts within organizations. 

The wide-ranging discussion included:

  • The need to center respect in conversations related to DEI,
  • Why inclusion tops diversity,
  • The importance of an executive-led, strategic perspective,
  • How to move from data and analytics to action planning, 
  • The impact of Gen Z in advancing issues of DEI in the workplace, and
  • How to create accountability for managers and leaders.

Here are some highlights of the session, which can be viewed on-demand here.

The Power of the Personal 

Gena Cox: “I was born in England, grew up in the Caribbean in Barbados, and came to the United States when I was 20 years old. When I came to the United States, I had to figure out the basic question: why does it feel so different? When I came here, I became a Black American woman, and those three words together are a very important part of this story, because ‘Black American woman’ has a specific definition in this culture. I had to learn how to become that so that I could understand better what it is that I was experiencing.”

Inclusion Starts with Respect

Emily Killham: “One of the things that the diversity and inclusion world has a lot of is acronyms. First it was the D, then it was the D and I, and then we added the E for equity. You use the acronym REDI throughout your book. Why did you choose to lead with R, and what is the R?”

Gena Cox: “It breaks down like this: R-E-D-I. R is for respect, E is for equity, D is for diversity, and I is for inclusion. What I did was move the letter R to the very front of the acronym. R stands for respect. I think everybody knows what that word means. I haven't changed the meaning of the word. It refers to that natural goodwill that one extends to another individual the minute they show up in your space.”

Perceptions of Disrespect

Gena Cox: “If you can address the workers at the very bottom of your organization, all other ships will rise. In my research, I talked to Black women — who have some of the lowest unfavorability scores across all clients — and what they said was, ‘Oh yeah, we know that leaders are not comfortable with the topic. We know that they're hesitant to act, and we also know that they avoid us and the issue.’ They also said, ‘We interpret that as disrespect.’ They didn't frame it as a lack of belonging, a lack of inclusion, a lack of equity, a lack of equality, or a lack of any of the other words that we use. Respect is a near-automatic reaction that people have. I've never liked the word belonging.”

Beyond Belonging 

Gena Cox: “I'm not saying you shouldn't use the term belonging. You probably need a little time to figure out if you feel a sense of belonging in an organization. Plus, it's not a word that average people use. And I am not convinced that employees want to belong to anybody. I know that's not the intended use of the word in the sense of possession, but from a historical perspective, I think we've had enough issues with people belonging to other people.”

“There’s an emerging belief that there are some ideas that only require one question to answer, or maybe two or three, not necessarily a six-item scale for everything. Respect is one of those metrics, because you can ask people, ‘Do you feel respected, yes or no, at work?’ Then you would ask, ‘What is it that you're experiencing in your environment that makes you feel respected?’ They can answer that. You can also ask, ‘What is it that you aren't experiencing or would need to experience in order to feel respected? What's missing?”

The Necessity of Leadership 

Gena Cox: “Traditionally, the executive level hasn’t handled diversity and inclusion programming. They thought it was okay to delegate it over the fence where they didn't have to see it all the time and didn't have to deal with the specifics. But the top of the organization determines what it feels like to be part of the organization on a daily basis.”

A Strategic Perspective on Inclusion

Gena Cox: “Implicit bias training and so-called ‘diversity hires’ aren’t bad, but both are reactive in nature. Both of those things are evidence of a lack of a strategic perspective on diversity and inclusion. A strategic perspective on this would involve the question of where we need to start. What are we solving for in our organization? What outcomes would we need to have in six months or a year to let us know we are achieving them? If you bring people into an organization who aren't similar to the people you've traditionally had, you need to have established a foundation of inclusion.” 

“The framing of this conversation should be that this is a leadership imperative, not just a moral imperative. If you want this organization to thrive, you need to make sure that every employee and every prospective employee has the opportunity to optimize their talents and impact. If this doesn't start from the top, then you end up with siloed diversity officers who are hired into the organization who cannot have the strategic impact that they showed up to make — and they won't stay, either.”

Moving from Data to Action

Gena Cox: I see a lot of surveys fielded where there's data collected that is useful, but the data isn't connected to any strategic objectives. This strategic piece at the beginning of survey design is non-negotiable. More frequent measurement and measuring the things that really matter for whatever purpose you're trying to accomplish also remain underutilized as a way to get to strategic action.”

“There's traditionally been a focus on the quantitative elements of the data, particularly as shared with executives. However, the qualitative data is more impactful than it has ever been. Previously, I never talked about qualitative data with executives. They didn't want to hear anything about it until they discovered that the stories and anecdotes within comment data can help them understand the nuances of employee experience. The stories are where the drivers of employee experience exist.”

“As far as overall survey design goes, the feedback that you receive from a survey needs to be the feedback that lets your organization know how it is faring in terms of achieving its strategic objectives. The ultimate test of any survey’s effectiveness comes down to whether it is providing adequate directional guidance about what is or isn’t working.”

Managers and Leaders Have to Own the Data

Gena Cox: “Managers and leaders need to own all this employee experience data, which hasn’t historically been the case. For example, the DEI data was often not even shared with the executives in the organization. It was kept within HR. We have to redefine the paradigm in terms of what data is shared with executives. We have to be willing to let the data speak for itself and be brutally honest when communicating what is working and what is not. Also, we need to be sure we are measuring the things that the executives should see. The conversation about equity in organizations is now focused heavily on fairness and pay transparency. We haven't traditionally dealt with those questions with our surveys.”

Living Up to the Values of the Organization

Emily Killham: “If leaders aren’t living up to the values of the organization, how can we measure that? Is there a way of surveying that captures this?”

Gena Cox: “It's important to know what employees want to see and what that they want to feel. Those are the things you should measure. Are people feeling seen, heard, and valued? You need survey questions that address these basic needs. Do they have a voice at an individual level within their teams? To what extent do people feel recognized? What career development do they desire? When I'm thinking about survey design, I’m thinking about basic human needs. As we analyze this data, we can cut it to see if there’s variability by demographic groups.”

The Impact of Gen Z on Workplace Conversation

Gena Cox: “As a section of the workforce, Gen Z is more vocal and verbal than prior generations. They can start a movement in a minute with a tweet, a TikTok, or a photograph on Instagram. It is critically important for leadership to understand what that generation believes because Gen Z has significantly influenced trends like Quiet Quitting and the Great Resignation. Their generational point of view is that something has to change and that you can't keep doing things the way we've always done. Gen Z doesn’t want leaders to discuss important topics like climate change or social justice in a veiled fashion; they want direct action. Through their presence in the workforce, they’re influencing prior generations, reminding us that we can ask for something different and alter the status quo.” 

Accountability at the Top

Emily Killham: “How important is accountability for leaders? How do you feel about putting this in as a part of their goals, their evaluations, or their bonuses?”

Gena Cox: “Accountability is not possible unless it’s driven from the top. If there are no consequences like what you’ve mentioned here, a leader won’t recognize that there is accountability for their actions. You are accountable for treating everyone on your team in an equitable way. You don’t want a situation where people are talking about pay disparities or promotion opportunities behind your back. To prevent this, you have to treat everybody the same.”

Difficult Conversations and Honesty

Gena Cox:  “Difficult conversations aren’t enjoyable, but managers and leaders must have them. Ultimately, they are the ones who own whatever challenges have arisen in their groups and  teams. We need to be honest with ourselves and with our organizations when we know the source of problems, because we must resolve those problems so that our people can have a good employee experience. It's not easy, but it’s what needs to be done.”

Perceptyx Can Help You Understand the State of Inclusion in Your Organization

Leaders who are truly able to bring their organization’s DEIB strategy to life can articulate the value of these initiatives across job levels, build accountability for their success, and help employees understand how these programs benefit everyone.

By working with a partner like Perceptyx, you can develop a strategy to measure DEIB and easily track the right metrics while developing a thorough understanding of what drivers will improve them over time.

To view the full webinar, click here. To speak to a DEIB solution specialist, schedule a meeting.

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