With more than twenty years of diversity and inclusion practice experience, Kimberley Messer understands what it takes to keep workplace progress moving forward. In short, she says, it requires “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied”.

Messer pioneered and led inclusion initiatives at the grass roots and in full global systems through her two decades with IBM, and now as VP Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at IGM Financial.

Inclusive leadership is no longer just a nice skillset to have, but a lifeforce for your organization’s performance. Messer recently joined Barnini Bhattacharyya and Shannon Rawski, from Ivey’s Organizational Behaviour group, for an Ivey Idea Forum discussion which dove deeply into the inclusive leadership skills needed to help build a workplace culture where employees feel valued, cared for, and welcomed.

The conversation moderated by Erin Huner, Ivey’s Director of Culture and Inclusion, was wide-ranging and touched important topics such as the value of allyship, effective workplace training programs, and creating organizational culture change.

How to be a good ally

An ally is typically someone who is relatively more privileged in a particular context, and effectively challenges oppression and advocates on behalf of somebody who is relatively marginalized in that same context.

According to Bhattacharyya who researches how to create more inclusive systems, there are three strategies for being an effective ally. They include centering the needs of the community you are supporting in your allyship actions; building awareness of your own privilege and powers and how to best use them; and focusing your allyship work around tangible action and outcomes, not just intent.

“It really begins from approaching allyship from a place of curiosity, humility and trusting in the others’ knowledge,” said Bhattacharyya. “The most effective allies are those who were willing to use their power to advocate for change, even if that might make them uncomfortable, and even if that entails making some mistakes and putting themselves at some level of calculated risk.”

Messer believes a key element of allyship is to leave space for collective growth.

“The concept of being an aspiring ally gives people a lot more leeway to understand this is a journey, and that there has to be room for learning, growth and perhaps even missteps,” she said. “We don’t want the idea of perfection to hold people back.”  

Keep workplace training positive

Shannon Rawski, an expert in the development of workplace sexual harassment training programs, believes training is not the solution for inclusion in organizations, but a piece of the bigger puzzle.

“Training is not the panacea,” said Rawski. “If you are going to do training in anything right, you need to do a proper needs analysis. What is going right in your organization that we can enhance and continue to grow? What is going wrong; where do we need to change directions? That’s probably going to involve changing some systems, processes and policies that we give employees and leaders.”

It’s critical to identify skill development in the learning objectives of a training program.

“If the training just says we want to be inclusive and here are some terms and definitions, that is very performative,” said Rawski. “But if the training helps to build skills to make real process and system changes, culture changes, that’s going to be effective.”

According to Rawski, the best training programs are interactive, and emphasize modelling positive behaviours.

“I always like to encourage trainers and training designers to keep it positive, because no one wants to go to a training session where you are typecast as the bad guy and feel like the whole room is staring and you are guilty of something you haven’t even done. Make a positive role for people to play. For instance, you can frame the training like this: 'We have developed this training program so you can be a team player in these changes'”.

Training also can’t simply be a knowledge dump.

“That is not how adults learn,” continued Rawski. “We need to give them a voice in the process, and it has to be very collaborative and iterative. It has to lead to real, actionable change.”

Tipping point for culture change

The ability to lead inclusively, Messer feels, is the new workplace currency.

However, there is still much work to be done to shift organizations from simply looking at diversity, equity and inclusion from a programmatic perspective, to finding the tipping point where it becomes deeply embedded in culture.

“Moving to the next phase where diversity, equity and inclusion is truly led by the business and ultimately integrated into everything you do is really where the deep work is in this space,” she said.

  • Tags
  • Barnini Bhattacharyya
  • Shannon Rawski
  • Erin Huner
  • Organizational Behaviour
  • Critical issues
  • Diversity
  • Evolution of work
  • Ivey Idea Forum
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