As Robert Fulghum reminded us in his 1986 book of kindergarten wisdom, the most important things in life were taught to us in kindergarten, like listening, sharing our gifts, respecting others' beliefs and needs, telling the truth, asking for consent, taking responsibility for the impacts of our actions, making amends and hugging it out. In this sense, this the journey we're on as leaders, organizations, nations, a species and planet, is a deep remembering.
It's basic human stuff. And it doesn't have to be hard. It's relearning who we are, what are our unique gifts to bring to others, how to receive the gifts of others, standing up for what we believe, protecting what is sacred and making things right when they ain't. Our wisdom traditions and people like Brené Brown, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Friedman, Fred Rogers and Otis Redding remind us of how simple it is to be ourselves. Our how our essential caring, courageous and creative nature is there waiting to be expressed.
"...the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."
- Brené Brown
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I've got held up for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
- George Bernard Shaw
“We used to work with our hands for many centuries; then we worked with our heads, and now we’re going to have to work with our hearts, because there’s one thing machines cannot, do not, never will have, and that’s a heart. We’re going from hands to heads to hearts.”
“The older I get, the more convinced I am that the space between people who are trying their best to understand each other is hallowed ground.”
- Fred Rogers
"All you got to do is try / Try a little tenderness." - Otis Redding
Fortunately, we have more the Mr. Rogers and kindergarten ethics to guide us. There is an emerging set of best practices to activate tenderness, authenticity, understanding, purpose, belonging and respect. Let's explore the research.
“... what employees need is a more personal sense of purpose. When employees believe that their work is personally relevant, there is a 26% increase in the likelihood of the organization to sustain workforce health. Employees also need to feel connected to one another… Highly cohesive teams have a 37% higher likelihood of sustaining workforce health.” (Gartner, 2021)
Two studies based on the work and research of my former teams at ion Learning and Imperative, illuminate the foundations of scalable culture change.
ion Learning Study Summary (Peele, Asbaty, 2020)
103 people from a large biotechnology company were placed into groups of 3-4 peers, with each group optimized for diversity. They completed a 6 module program where they learned new concepts, reflected on their purpose and values and shared their experiences with each other in 6, 1-hour small group discussions. The results of this approach are that 95% of people complete the programs, 90% can apply the concepts, 85% changed their behaviors, 76% embedded their understanding into daily habits, and participants reported they learned 63% more on average, because of their small group sessions.
Further, 98% of people experience respect from their diverse peers and 96% of people experience empathy, 96% discover alternative perspectives to their challenges, and 94% feel comfortable discussing their anxiety and fears that distract them from work with their diverse peers (Peele, Asbaty, 2020).
Imperative Study Summary (Hurst, 2021)
People were placed in pairs to have 5, 1-hour guided video discussions to reflect on their purpose and share their work and life experiences with each other. This study involved 30,000+ conversations, across 27 functions, 14 industries (professional services, finance, retail, consumer, technology, healthcare, government, education, non-profit, etc.).
Before beginning the study, they found that 22% had no meaningful relationships, and that 76% of the participants' desired growth areas were power skills and relationship development (vs. 24% technical skills). They found that after the intervention, participants felt 2.4x more positive, had 2x more friends at work, 78% felt their experience made them more successful, 71% took new actions and 52% took a new action after each conversation. Further, among participants who were unfulfilled prior to the study, 62% reported a significant increase in fulfillment in less than three months.
Collectively, these paint a picture of how to develop diverse people, teams and culture:
A. put people in small, diverse groups of peers,
B. empower them to activate their purpose and values at work and find their expression of the organization's purpose and values,
C. and share their experiences with each other in the flow of work, over time and regardless of where they are physically.
Let’s now take a closer look at the twin drivers of organizational flourishing - purpose and belonging.
Driver #1: Purpose
Purpose gives us access to both more of ourselves and more of a connection to others. It is serves us individually, as it is the key to our aliveness, leadership, impact, fulfillment and prosperity, AND serves others, as it expands our identity and concern from self and family to community, company, nation and planet. It makes us more independent and self-reliant and also more connected and compassionate. Over the last few decades, we have come to believe that we have to be one or the other. We must be a bleeding heart, touchy-feely non-profit martyr who is woke to all injustices at all times, or a stone-hearted, hard-nosed, "just the facts" individualist hell-bent on fame and fortune. Purpose is a sacred salve that lets us be both, value both, and celebrate both.
When we activate purpose and belonging, we come alive. We know who we are, who we belong to, who we serve and what is ours to do. We have the clarity, confidence and courage to do the hard, right and unpopular things, but with care and compassion. We are connected to ourselves, each other and a future of shared prosperity. We move towards each other, towards discomfort and ambiguity, and find the hidden connections and hallowed ground between us. We lean on, versus lean down on, each other. We uplift each other, welcome one another's wholeness and stand for one another's purpose and greatness, empowering each of us to realize to feel seen, heard and valued and experience “...the true joy in life”.
As we explored in Chapter 4, your purpose is the starting point. People need to see and feel your authentic purpose and its connection to the organization’s purpose. An authentic and believable purpose must be on the table before anyone can decide to do anything differently or develop new skills, beliefs and behaviors.
It is also necessary for everyone of your employees to have a connection to their own purpose in order to understand themselves as bigger than their personality, gender, and skin color, and to be able to find their own unique connection to the organization's purpose. In a sense, purpose is like a muscle. It has to be developed first individually before it can be apprehended and embodied collectively. Having a connection to one’s own purpose is also the key to seeing new beliefs and behaviors as self-expression versus something outside of us.
For example, when we spend just 5 minutes connecting with our purpose, we are 4 times more likely to choose to live in a diverse city, (Burrows, 2014) and experience a 4x reduction in anxiety in diverse environments. (Burrows, 2013). While this is a stark difference, it is not unexpected, as purpose is correlated with numerous prosocial attributes, such as curiosity, compassion, self-reflection and generosity:
The reason for this is that purpose grounds us in our deepest identity which gives us the freedom to accept others for who they are. It is perhaps no surprise that 3 of McKinsey’s 6 aspects of an inclusive culture (Authenticity, Meaningful Work and Camaraderie) are driven by purpose (McKinsey, 2021).
In the thousands of purposes generated by participants in programs I’ve led, I have yet to encounter a purpose that isn't generative, inclusive and good-natured. Purpose statements are usually about peace, connection, love, compassion, healing, prosperity, creativity and/or service. There's never anything about being # 1, or hate or division or oppression in a purpose statement.
As such, without purpose first being cultivated, DEI initiatives are likely to land as obligatory and shaming for people in the dominant group (e.g., heterosexuals, men, Caucasians). In traditional DEI programs, people encounter their microaggressions, biases and privileges, but are almost guaranteed to feel shame about them, and thus resist transforming them or taking new actions, unless they have solid footing in the self-love, curiosity, grit, humility, self-worth and psychological individuation (FIU, 2014) that purpose provides. Without a grounding in their purpose, they are likely to experience paralysis, inaction, complicity and, as we’ve seen, even increased hostility to inclusion training and/or diverse team members.
When people activate their purpose, they are enacting a powerful shift in identity from the socialized self to the authentic self. We rely less on our ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, income bracket, age, religion, and political party to define us, and find a new home for our identity inside of our unique purpose and values. This is critical for everyone to experience, and especially for privileged groups, so that when we embark on DEI work, we see inclusion as self-expression, as an expansion of our truest and highest sense of self and a skill-set to more effectively lead any person or group.
Further, when we know our purpose, we recognize on some level that everyone else has a purpose and that they deserve the opportunity to discover it, activate it and bring it to work. I regard purpose as human right - without it we are beholden to our socialized self and the systemic inequities and internalized oppression that formed it. Accordingly, the personal liberation that results from purpose work, becomes an activist stance towards the purpose, self-actualization, prosperity and advancement of others as well.
In addition to the catalytic and foundational role purpose plays in DEI initiatives, it is and always has been what people wanted deep down. Increasingly people want work that is personally meaningful, as 99% of people believe that if they cannot be fulfilled in life if they are not fulfilled at work (Imperative, 2019). We want a generative impact on society and/or the environment and to be paid a living wage that allows us to provide for our families and enjoy nature, culture and community.
Although this might sound like “Duh. Of course. What kind of sick puppy would not want that?”, until very recently, a sentiment like this was largely regarded as silly, unrealistic, and/or impossible. Millennials and Zenials, who now represent 40% of the workforce, have been derided as entitled babies because they’ve voiced these wants. They are not entitled babies. They are merely better at articulating what they want than the rest of us.
Source: Google Trends (Google Trends. (May, 2019)
For Boomers and Gen X, it used to be that a job was a job, work was a four-letter word, and that we weren’t at work to be happy, but to make money. We used to believe that if we wanted happiness and meaning, we could do that on our own time through hobbies, art, religion, civic engagement or time with family. This has changed, as...
And as we've explored, 99% of people believe work should have purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, only 15% of people believe they can fulfill their purpose in their current roles (McKinsey, 2021).
This echoes similar shifts in consumer beliefs, as 9 of every 10 consumers say they would rather buy from a company that leads with purpose (Cone/Porter Novelli, 2018), and 87% of global consumers believe businesses should put at least as much emphasis on social interests as business ones (Edelman, 2017).
However, purpose isn’t the only thing needed for culture change. As we explored in the last chapter, every aspect of the way we think about and care for people must change, moving towards connecting people, towards caring for them as connected, whole, unique and sovereign adults, with gifts and passions that are longing to be discovered, acknowledged and activated.
Driver #2: Belonging
We ache to belong. We are kindergartners and bison, a herd species that is of, by, for and through each other. However, we’ve forgotten our nature and have tricked ourselves into thinking we were eagles. It’s time to come back home to ourselves and our relationships. But what does it actually mean to belong?
Belonging is the sense that you matter, that all of you is welcome, and you do not have to leave anything at the door. Alex Pentland, PhD and Oren Lederman, PhD of MIT's Human Dynamics Lab (MIT, 2021) have run dozens of studies on belonging, nonverbal communication and group performance. They discovered that belonging is not about fitting in or conforming, but about mattering and safety. It is the result of a series of behaviors or cues, e.g., energy, turn taking / inclusion, and intergroup communication that signal safety. Digging deeper they found that the most effective belonging cues had 3 qualities:
When these belonging cues occur over time, people feel safe, like they matter, can relax and are excited to learn, grow, connect and do their best work. And of course there is a powerful belonging ROI (BetterUp, 2019):
Belonging & Learning
As it turns out, we’re not just wired to connect and belong, but to learn together. Peer learning is how most learning already happens. Research suggests that 80% of us learn as much or more from our peers than authority figures (Imperative, 2019) and as we explored, we learn 63% more from conversations in small, diverse learning cohorts, than we do from consuming information alone (ion Learning, 2020). This is because weak ties, such as those between trainers and learners are good for spreading information only, versus the relationships, experience and reflection necessary to develop habits and build a successful career at a firm.
"...immersive, small-group sessions may not sound as sexy as a paid leave of absence to do good in the world, but they are a lot more effective at helping employees start to see the good they can do in their day-to-day work." (McKinsey & Co., 2021)
Belonging and behavior change require consistency, network redundancy (Centola, 2021), and strong ties, ties that can be developed via small groups of peers who meet together over time.
Belonging & DEI
This matters most for new and diverse hires. If diverse candidates build a wide network of diverse peers in their first six months, they are more likely to receive early promotions and enjoy longer tenures (MIT, 2021). Wide peer networks empower employees to develop a broader understanding of the organization and industry and bring a greater depth of knowledge and innovation to problem solving (Burt, 1992), thus making diverse hires more effective at work, able to build trust and receive promotions (MIT, 2021).
Conversely, if people aren’t developed equitably and early in their tenure, they are unlikely to stick around to be promoted (LinkedIn, 2018). Correspondingly, organizations suffer, as they can’t harvest the creativity and productivity benefits that diverse workforces foster (Scientific American, 2014).
Belonging & Wellness
As we explored the last chapter, nurturing belonging through connection, caring and contribution is the key to our social and emotional health (Ford, et al, 2015), driving social integration and increasing our life spans by 7+ years (Journals of Gerontology, 2020). Research from Tom Rath and Jim Hartner confirms that every hour of social time improves your chance of having a good day (Wellbeing, 2010). Further, regular check-ins empower us to complete our stress cycles and avoid burnout (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2020).
So how do we ensure everyone feels cared for, invested in and like they belong? We put people in small, diverse groups where they learn about themselves, each other and new skills over time.
The Power of Groups
Groups enable behavior change through social support (BMC Public Health, 2016), the formation of group norms (Behavior Research and Therapy, 2015), group identity (British Journal of Health Psychology, 2014), and social identities (Journal of Affective Disorders, 2016), and through group feedback and being challenged (Clinical Oncology, 2015). As Nick Craig and Snook observed in the Harvard Business Review, "you can't get a clear picture of yourself without trusted friends acting as mirrors." (HBR, 2014)
When small groups are designed in such a manner that we feel safe and can share uncomfortable feelings, we experience fewer feelings of isolation, alienation, blame, and stigma due to past mistakes (Group Dynamics, 2003). As people are engaged in supporting each other, sharing vulnerably, and skillfully challenging each other over time, their beliefs, behaviors, and underlying intuitions expand their sense of group identity and impacts their moral reasoning (Haidt, 2001).
Given the power that groups have to shift behavior (for better or worse), we must bring a great deal of care and attention to how we form these groups. The size, composition, duration of groups, as well as how people learn together are critical elements of a successful social learning experience.
For every person added to a group, there is a loss of intimacy and a gain in perspective (Soboroff, 2012). Additionally, larger groups (> 6 people) face logistical difficulties in selecting a time to meet there is a loss of conversational depth, as everyone has less time to share their experiences. Conversely, a group of 2 people doesn’t bring the breadth of diversity needed for a rich exchange and the connection, understanding and norms that form between two people aren’t reinforced by a third or fourth person, so the diad runs the risk of being a private matter, as something unique and outside of the broader culture, versus a part of the culture. As such, it is likely the optimal "Goldilocks condition" for a peer learning group's size is 3-6 people.
To create a climate of safety and full expression in the groups, it is important that there are as few power dynamics in a group as possible. This means that each group must be composed of peers at roughly the same level, and without direct reporting relationships.
Given the limited size of a group (3-6), when a person is placed in a group, it is important that the perspective they bring is diverse and unique. Research suggests that optimizing groups for diversity, especially in relation to gender (Computers in Human Behavior, 2015) and ethnicity (International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 2002), yields better learning and behavioral outcomes.
Gordon Allport's 1954 "contact hypothesis", and several decades of subsequent research, reveals that the more contact people have with those who are different, the greater they understand them and feel connected to them (APA, 2001). A meta-analysis of over 500 studies on intergroup contact revealed that interacting with people who have different backgrounds reduces out-group prejudice 94% of the time (APA, 2006). Of particular interest to organizations is that fostering divides across function and geography is also critical as it breaks down silos, enhances institutional knowledge transfer and empowers diverse candidates to build a wide professional network (Organizational Dynamics, 2017).
Program Duration and Scope
Because people forget 90% of what they learn within 7 days after a one-time training(PLoS One, 2015), it is critical that learning is spaced out over time, so that it can be reinforced, woven into the flow of work, identity, and diverse relationships can develop. Research suggests that the optimal number of sessions for a social learning experience is 5-6 sessions (Hurst, 2021, Peele, Asbaty, 2020). Further, as we’ve explored, to effect a culture change across an entire population, such as an organization, at least 25% of the population must adopt a new belief or practice a new behavior before a broader culture shift begins (Centola, 2021).
While the aforementioned research is relatively new, building diverse relationships around a shared purpose has been central to many of our greatest innovations and proudest moments as a nation. From Farm Aid in the 1980's, to the Jigsaw method to racially integrate Texas schools in the 1970's, to the diverse collaboration that put Neil Armstrong on the moon in the 1960's, and our nation's rapid WWII mobilization in the 1940's, we continually come back to the same conclusion: we are better, kinder and stronger together.
As long as we discover something new about ourselves and share that with people who are different in a safe container, we experience empathy and trust across differences, and we can achieve the unimaginable. Given the power of purpose and small, diverse peer learning groups, are you ready to unleash the potential of your people and transform your organization?
In the next chapter, we'll explore a few more important rules of the game.
Chapter 6 Summary:
Chapter 6 Reflection Questions:
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