By Pamela Arnold and Terri Kruzan

Understanding the culture of your organization in Diversity Management work is similar to powering up your GPS or checking with AAA before starting out on a long road trip. It helps you navigate the journey from a strategic base—by providing clues to shortcuts that can accelerate progress and identifies potential roadblocks that can derail success.

For more than 25 years, The American Institute for Managing Diversity (AIMD) and its affiliated researchers have been creating road maps for organizations to support their diversity efforts. Starting in 1984 under the initiative of Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., we partnered with pioneering companies, such as Procter & Gamble, Union Pacific Railroad and Great Rivers Girl Scout Council in the development of a culture audit process to link diversity efforts with achieving business/mission objectives.

While there has been an evolution in the kinds of roadblocks and shortcuts that accelerate or hinder diversity management, there have also been some consistencies across organizations and over time that we can share. Here are three critical observations:

• Lack of consistent understanding of an organization’s definition of diversity among stakeholders;

• Lack of recognition of the impact of strategic culture drivers on success; and

• Lack of recognition of the need to focus on only a few aspects of culture at a time to leverage change.

Defining Diversity

How people define diversity has been changing over the years. In 1984, people did not have a personal definition of diversity, but we find today that individuals within U.S. organizations are more likely to personally define diversity in these terms—differences and similarities among people, such as by race/ethnicity, gender, age, faith, cultural background, thinking styles, etc.

Concurrently, when we ask how stakeholders think their organization defines diversity—their responses become more muddled. Their responses range from ‘do not know’ to a focus on the action of ‘providing opportunities for employees from the protected classes.’ Apparently, there is a disconnect between how people in general define diversity and what they see as the focus of their organization’s diversity efforts. (This is an observation pertaining to organizations with U.S.-based operations. As you might expect, this varies when you work with populations of employees outside the U.S.)

Power of Strategic Culture Drivers

Another general observation is the importance of understanding the impact of strategic culture drivers on the success of diversity. Strategic culture drivers are the sources of competitive advantage for organizations and influence almost all business planning decisions. An example of a strategic culture driver is—‘Maintaining Our Brand is Key to Our Success.’

In what we call Brand Cultures, there are usually high levels of conformity around ‘fitting-in.’ There may be written or unwritten rules on how to dress, style, personal appearance, lifestyle—and not knowing the importance of exhibiting, or not desiring to exhibit these rules of behavior can hinder an individual’s ability to be accepted and be given opportunities for development/advancement. The insight we provide organizations in these situations is to focus on where ‘conforming to brand rules’ is a requirement and where is it merely a preference or a tradition.

Culture Change

Finally, organizational culture change can be a tricky business and usually takes actions on three levels:

1. Leaders modeling, recognizing and sharing the vision;

2. Educating, training and rewarding people for new attitudes and behaviors; and

3. Verifying that systems support the desired way of working. Consistent messages on expectations and how to act is important.

As can be seen, prioritizing one or two leverage points for change needs to be multiplied for culture change to have a chance of succeeding. As everyone knows, change usually does not work perfectly at first and there needs to be a readiness to re-think and tweak to meet workplace realities. It is critical to be strategic in terms of which leverage points will be most effective.