Cultural Inertia and EDI
I often think about organizations that since the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the racial justice reckoning that followed, were quick to announce their commitment to anti-racism, and more broadly to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). At that time, CEOs and leaders made statements full of promise and aspiration, and almost two years later, in many cases, it’s hard to find much to sustain these statements on the ground.
The causes for this lack of tangible action and results are multiple. However, in this post I would like to focus on the cultural inertia that seems to have paralyzed many organizations in regards to their EDI work and the inherent risks this inertia poses for them.
When we talk about culture in the workplace, we are referring to shared values, beliefs, and attitudes that translate into dominant practices often thought of “as the way things are done”. Unfortunately, far too many organizations are characterized by workplace cultures that continuously produce pathological outcomes for members of equity-seeking groups (women, Indigenous, Black, other racialized people, LGTBQ2S+, people with disabilities, etc.)
So, what happens when leaders of these types of organizations express commitment to anti-racism and EDI but simultaneously insist on doing things the way they have always been done? What happens when organizations are caught up in a state of cultural inertia, defined by MIT Sloan School of Management as an organizational reluctance to rigorously rethink or challenge past leadership practices?
It doesn’t take much for what is broken on the inside, to be revealed to the outside. And once this happens, trust is eroded, confidence in the organization and its leaders plummets, cultural crises are precipitated, and risk for organizations is significantly elevated in multiple fronts (employees, clients, reputation, value).
Back in 2019, a report titled Cultural Vigilance: A Corporate Imperative identified lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion as one of the six factors most predictive of cultural risk for companies. Ironically, it is workplace culture alongside leadership and cultural inertia what most often stands in the way of progress around equity, diversity, and inclusion.
As we enter 2022 and the gap between what is said and what is done in regards to EDI becomes more evident, leaders need to decide how much they are willing to risk by continuing to embrace cultures that do nothing and remain unchanged. The demand for deliberate action to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion in organizations is not going away any time soon. EDI has long ago stopped being a “nice to have” and it has become a significant business imperative.
If you are the leader of a company suffering from what Douglas Ready calls broken culture syndrome or the perception that your culture is the problem, it might be time to critically reflect on the alignment or misalignment of your values and your actions. In other words, it’s time to ask how true and authentic the pieces of your narrative really are and are perceived by your employees, your clients, and your communities.
If in 2020 you committed to anti-racism and doing the work to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion, now it’s the time to back those promises and aspirations with deliberate and substantial actions. By now, it should be clear what needs to be done. It’s up to you to decide if those statements made in 2020 turn into an asset or a liability for your organization.