Our organisations and the individuals within them have different facets and we need to embrace that diversity in all its forms. Doing this will help us to make our services and daily interactions with others a richer experience.
Like the infamous scene from the first Shrek movie:
Shrek: For your information, there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.
Shrek: Example… uh… ogres are like onions!
[holds up an onion, which Donkey sniffs]
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes… No!
Donkey: Oh, they make you cry?
Donkey: Oh, you leave ’em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs…
Shrek: [peels an onion] NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers… You get it? We both have layers.
Not that I am suggesting you start peeling onions as part of your team meeting, but hopefully that humorous little snippet paints the picture.
People are like onions!
They have many, many layers! In most organisations, people come together, bringing with them their own values, experiences, skills and, yes, bias.
Diversity is not an ‘agenda’ – it is a natural byproduct between people. The benefit relies on peoples’ capacity to deal with difference and tension in a constructive and useful way.
As providers, we see diversity in our workforce and it is encountered at many levels. In a rural or remote context this often means indigenous and non-indigenous people, including those who may be from a variety of CALD backgrounds – working together. We see diversity in culture, language, (English) literacy and numeracy, as well as diversity in expectation from both sides about how care and services are provided, and what defines ‘quality’. This diverse mix can lead to tension in the workplace and a reduction in the quality of care and support provided to clients if not managed properly.
So how do you embed a workplace culture that is inclusive of diversity, respectful of differences and able to be more responsive, catering for diverse needs of consumers and supportive of staff?
1. Acknowledge difference. Difference can create tension because of a lack of understanding, bias and unclear communication (misunderstanding and misinterpretation). Acknowledgement of an issue is always the first step forward. ‘We cannot change what we do not first acknowledge,’ as I am sure many wise people have said over the eons. Once we have taken this first step, we can look at difference as an opportunity rather than as a problem.
2. Focus on commonalities and purpose. Bring your team together and discuss the vision and purpose of the work that you do individually and as a team. For example, if your vision is ‘Working together to keep our old people strong,’ talk about how each person, in their daily role, contributes to this.
3. Provide opportunity for individuals to highlight their skills and knowledge. Allowing individuals on the team to talk about what they do well supports the development of a cohesive group. Not only does this demonstrate the team skill set and experience, it can also provide an opportunity to problem solve, utilising the diversity of experience and background in the group to add different perspectives. Encourage the use of this time as a ‘safe space’ for people to also talk about what is working well and what isn’t.
4. Actively support people in diversity training and encourage more ‘open thought’. I am sure you have heard the saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’? Well, I’d like to challenge that ‘assumption’. As human beings, we are one of the most adaptable creatures on this planet.
If you or your organisation is not confident in doing this in house, look for options. There are a number of training workshops, books and resources on how to build workplace diversity and a culture of inclusion.
5. Discourage the ‘my way is the best way’ thinking. Encourage ‘third chair thinking’. This technique involves looking at something from another perspective. If you disagree on an issue, or how something is being done, e.g. the staff roster, or delivery run for the meals on wheels, step back and consider the issue from all sides clearly and objectively.
‘Third chair thinking’ is something that can be done as an exercise as part of a team meeting. Think about making it a topic for a workplace ‘toolbox talk’. This technique has more value than simply problem solving – it encourages people to think about someone else’s perspective other than their own.
6. Document the importance of diversity in your organisation policy. Embedding statements about diversity and workplace culture into your organisational documents and policies can support an inclusive environment. If an acceptance and embracing of diversity is not enshrined in your written documentation or talked about, it’s not going to be embedded into a culture of understanding. And don’t just grab a policy off the Internet – workshop it across your team and include the topic in your annual planning day (and not just once). Discuss and document clear examples of what diversity is (among staff, clients and the community) and how you acknowledge and include diversity in daily practice.
7. Challenge assumptions and bias. As a consultant, I spend a lot of time on the road, going to different places, meeting different people and working in a range of often challenging environments. I constantly have to question myself: “Do I really know this as a fact or do I think I know this?” It’s a bit like having an internal detective. The point is, I need to check that I am not making a biased judgment based on one piece of information and my initial observation. I need to ensure I have an accurate understanding of the situation.
The Key ‘Change Agent’ Tips in summary:
- Do not pretend – acknowledge that not everyone is the same, with common values, beliefs and culture.
- Focus on commonality and what your purpose is as a group of people delivering service and support to your clients.
- Train and support open thought.
- Encourage a third chair perspective.
- Document – if it’s not written down, it doesn’t happen.
- Keep challenging assumptions and bias.