Deena Pierott’s first foray into helping organizations initiate change in workplace culture occurred after she recognized that her employer lacked an understanding of leading with empathy and addressing issues of diversity and inclusion.
“While working for the City of Portland in the early 1990s, the first thing I noticed was the lack of diversity,” said Pierott. “I kept having this weird feeling that I didn’t belong, nor was it overly welcoming to me, or other people of color.”
An absence of diversity efforts within that workplace inspired Pierott to find ways to create change, while also using it as an opportunity to teach. In 1995, years before most prominent companies and organizations embraced the need for diversity and inclusion, Pierott established a diversity council within the City of Portland.
“I created our diversity council at one of the largest bureaus at the City of Portland,” Pierott shared. “We created initiatives so that potential job candidates had a diverse interview panel, and we also had a diverse review board when companies would bid for city contracts. Topline management staff had equity and diversity goals that they needed to meet and they were reviewed annually.”
Pierott eventually decided to assist other organizations with their DEI efforts by founding a company in 2007 and becoming a diversity strategist.
“A company can’t create empathy, but people can,” Pierott shares. “So the people within those organizations have to do the work. You have to first impact the heart and impact the mind in this work. You can’t just put this cut and paste scenario to every company. It has to be tailored to that organization and the people within that organization. You have to want those people to be involved in the systemic change. That’s how you can start changing some of the systems that have been embedded in companies for centuries.”
When companies and organizations fail to lead with empathy and prioritize diversity and inclusion, it can impact morale in the workforce and a company’s bottom line.
According to a study conducted by Catalyst, 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders.
And for companies to truly build a more inclusive work environment, diversity should be present at all levels.
“There’s a distinction between change and transformation,” says Dr. Patricia Anderson, a leadership strategist and author of the book, “You Know Less Than You Don’t Know.” “Change is binary. I advocate for transformation which means it’s not about your actions, it’s about your mindset and your belief system.”
Changing an organization’s culture must be more focused than checking boxes so that the optics look good, Anderson believes.
“What I’ve seen in my experiences is that some people in leadership roles believe that people who are different from them are not as good as them. Leaders can’t be exclusionary because they will exclude opportunities for innovation,” she says.
At Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the school created the Bias Education & Response Team (BERT) that supports anti-bias education and responds to bias incidents through proactive resolutions. Yvette Davis, director of Dickinson College’s Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity, believes that a program similar to BERT would be effective in the workplace.
“If something similar to BERT was implemented in a workplace environment, it would have a diverse group who could represent different sectors of that workplace,” Davis says. “There should be a diversity of perspectives. We’re not only looking at bias incidents on a transactional basis, but providing education around communication, behavior, and an understanding of various cultures and identities. Not only referring to race and ethnicity, but also sexual identity.”
A focus on diversity and inclusion can also help companies attract top-level talent from across different ethnic backgrounds and the younger generation of workers.
During a keynote address at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, Pierott noticed that Gen Zers across all racial backgrounds were open-minded when it came to learning about the importance of diversity.
“I think there’s a shift,” Pierott says. “While giving my keynote speech, I realized that 85% of the audience were young, white male students. They told me that they were there because they want to be a part of the solution. Some were raised in spaces where family members would say negative things about other cultures. The students wanted to go on their own journey of self-discovery. I left that meeting feeling hopeful about this next generation wanting to see more diversity and equity.”
When empathy is instilled within an organization’s culture, leaders create an environment that will empower employees and help to increase productivity and profits.
“If you have the same sort of people thinking the same way without diversity of thought, your company will lack growth,” Anderson emotes. “If you’re being inclusive and bringing other types of individuals with different experiences, it can lead to different ideas and innovation. When people from diverse backgrounds see others who look like them succeed in an organization, it inspires them to give everything because they see a path forward.”