How to Build a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Culture

Where do you start with efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion? Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, considered by some as the father of diversity management, said “if the goal is not to assimilate diversity into the dominant culture but rather to build a culture that can digest unassimilated diversity, then you had better start by figuring out what your present culture looks like.”

Culture is often raised as an important factor for effective diversity management, but the challenging work to understand and evolve culture is often avoided in favor of training, system improvements, or other “bolt-on” programs.

These “one-size-fits-all” programs or initiatives may have an initial positive impact, but sustainability will be an issue as the behavior of team members continues to fall in line with the current expectations or behavioral norms of the organizational culture. Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. , CEO of Human Synergistics, identified that “in many cases, what organizations are really facing are underlying organizational culture problems manifesting themselves as diversity and inclusion problems.”

Instead, the key to creating equitable organizations is a culture development program.

We strive for a culture of justice where right is rewarded, wrong is sanctioned and corrected, and everyone has access and the opportunity to make a difference. It is not possible to achieve these goals and optimize your diversity and inclusion journey without a meaningful understanding of culture and managing intentional culture-related change. Many diversity and inclusion improvement plans are oversimplified or flawed from the start due to four major reasons:

  1. The purpose of the diversity improvement effort is not clearly articulated nor connected to supporting the purpose or mission of the organization and related performance priorities.
  2. Assessment of the current state is based on surface-level measures of the work climate instead of a comprehensive exploration of the underlying culture, associated sub-cultures, how they emerged, and why they are so deeply entrenched.
  3. Change efforts are narrow in scope and focused on programs or initiatives that fall short of connecting learning and results for individuals, teams, and the overall organization.
  4. The design of change efforts does not guarantee shared learning through planned reflection, measurement, and refinement of improvement plans at defined periods.

Often the best way for creating equitable organizations is culture change. It is time to reframe diversity, equity, and inclusion improvement strategies through the lens of culture. The Human Synergistics framework should help you structure your approach.

diversity, equity, and inclusion improvement strategies

Phase 1: Understand “Why” – Discover and Align

Often, organizations jump to tactics regarding diversity scorekeeping and management without clearly defining why diversity improvement is essential. It’s not sufficient to say “it’s the right thing to do,” or, “it’s necessary to attract the best talent,” because most organizations do not exist to improve diversity or attract talent. The “why” should be clearly articulated and connected to the organization’s purpose or mission. Typical benefits of diversity and inclusion include:

  • Optimizing customer experience for a diverse marketplace
  • Understanding underserved market segments
  • Improving innovation and creativity
  • Solving problems faster and more effectively
  • Improving effectiveness in a global market
  • Accurately predicting customer demand
  • Improving team performance (which leads to better organizational performance)

These primary benefits are complemented by a wide range of secondary benefits, including attracting and retaining talent, improving engagement, and enhancing collaboration. Define a meaningful why for diversity management and the specific results or outcomes targeted for improvement. It’s fine to share research about the benefits of diversity management but diversity will not be institutionalized in your culture as a way of thinking and behaving until you prove the value in terms of enhancing targeted results or outcomes.

Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede referred to culture as “the collective programming of the mind.” In the case of diversity management, “reprogramming” is clearly necessary as groups learn inclusive approaches to deliver results. 

“Just as it would take an outsider to introduce water to a fish, it takes an objective and experienced professional to help leaders of an organization articulate and codify the collective culture. Insiders can’t see it because it is such a natural part of the environment that it is easy to overlook.”
~Dr. James O. Rodgers, The Diversity Coach

Phase 2: Build a Baseline – Enlist and Engage, Measure, and Analyze

When we are clear about our why, we can determine the aspects of our culture that are helping and hindering efforts to achieve the outcomes targeted for improvement. The frame to understand culture is not engagement, diversity scorecards, workplace satisfaction, or other surface measures.

These climate measures are visible manifestations of the culture. They may be useful but they do not provide the clarity necessary to understand “real” cultural attributes like shared beliefs, assumptions, and behavioral norms along with how they play out across different subcultures (race, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, etc.).

The baseline culture assessment is a “full MRI” or “culture deep-dive” completed through a combination of qualitative (focus groups, interviews, history reviews with long service team members, etc.) and quantitative (culture and climate surveys) methods.

Complete the qualitative assessment first to understand current perceptions about the outcomes targeted for improvement, related cultural strengths and weaknesses, and aspects of the work climate (systems, structures, leadership approaches, etc.) reinforcing or encouraging the current cultural norms.  

Second, complete a quantitative assessment with a valid and reliable survey. Consider utilizing the globally recognized Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) to gain a common language and measurement for culture and climate. It’s essential to measure the culture and climate holistically and without judgment. Summarize the results of the initial qualitative and quantitative steps to help transform the abstract into something others will understand with the shared language, data, stories, and examples.

Finally, complete a second qualitative review to probe findings and identify critical learnings with input from a diverse steering team or group to gain a thorough appreciation for the subcultures that exist, how they are reinforced, and how they impact results or outcomes.

Don’t underestimate the power of gaining a common language and measurement for culture. Over 40 years of research by Robert Cooke and his colleagues indicates that Constructive cultures—with behavioral norms like taking on challenging tasks, cooperating with others, and maintaining personal integrity—promote diversity, productive interpersonal relations, and the attainment of individual and organizational goals.

Organizations with strong Constructive norms perform better than those with predominately Passive/Defensive norms like accepting the status quo, never challenging superiors, and making “popular” rather than necessary decisions that suppress diversity, individual differences, and personal initiative. These Passive/Defensive norms may be more influential in under-represented groups as individuals attempt to fit in with the dominant culture.

Organizations with Constructive Cultures also perform better than organizations with primarily Aggressive/Defensive norms like competing rather than cooperating, opposing new ideas, maintaining an image of superiority and using the authority of one’s position, which emphasize differences but impede collaboration and integration.

Recent research, supported by Human Synergistics and published in one of the largest global culture studies (the OC Tanner 2020 Global Culture Report), highlights that we have a long way to go to build Constructive Cultures on a global scale.

Only 10% of respondents reported that the cultures of their organizations were primarily Constructive. Instead, 48% of them described their organization’s culture as primarily Passive/Defensive, and 42% of the respondents described their culture as primarily Aggressive/Defensive (access the 2020 Global Culture Report Supplement). The low reported frequency of Constructive Cultures should not be a surprise with the growing pressure in society to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“Let’s create an environment where everyone will do their best work.”
~R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.

Phase 3: Create Change – Debrief Results, Build Capability and Initiate Planning

The third phase involves the sharing of assessment results and engagement of groups in improvement planning. The summary of baseline results should include a particular emphasis on significant sub-culture similarities and differences.

Top leaders must begin to gain an appreciation of how cultural experiences vary across their team and how they are intentionally and unintentionally encouraging norms or unwritten rules that may be difficult to hear. Dr. Sondra Thiederman, a pioneer in diversity and expert in unconscious bias, said, “stay at the table while discomfort is being served.” This learning ideally will spark the definition of a bold but achievable vision that connects back to the outcomes targeted for improvement in Phase 1.

Refine the improvement vision from leadership with feedback from a diverse team and use it as inspiration for plans in three logical and parallel paths:

  1. Organization-Level Improvements – How will the strategy, structure, and operating systems of the organization be refined to support highly inclusive and effective plans to deliver the targeted outcomes and constructive behavior? Focus on the deficiencies identified in the qualitative and quantitative methods mentioned above.
  2. Individual-Level Improvements – How will individuals, starting with top leaders, obtain feedback on their behavior and learn the skills necessary to interact with others constructively? Utilize behavior-based assessments designed for development like the Leadership/Impact® (L/I), Management/Impact® (M/I), Life Styles Inventory® (LSI), and/or the ACUMEN® Leadership WorkStyles (LWS) as part of this process. This is also where foundational learning experiences about valuing differences and unconscious bias can be useful.
  3. Team-Level Improvements – How will specific improvement strategies be piloted to connect learning and results with one or more improvement teams? This third path is typically missing from diversity management strategies or covered by a generic diversity team. The purpose is to apply and learn from specific inclusive approaches to improve the primary outcomes targeted for improvement (customer experience, employee experience, innovation, etc.). The team will prove diverse and inclusive methods are more effective in a targeted area and spark or support the diversity management learning journey.

    Results and consequences are the feedback loops necessary for any new cultural attribute to form. This focused team approach increases the likelihood of delivering results connected explicitly to the “why” defined in Phase 1. Scale the team approach by intentionally spreading critical learnings to other groups at designated periods.

“The real problem with this corporate culture tree is that every time you go to make changes in the roots, you run into terrible opposition. Every culture, including corporate culture, has root guards that turn out in force every time you threaten a basic assumption.”
~Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.

Phase 4: Learn & Sustain – Finalize Plans, Implement, Learn, and Adjust

While these tasks can be started in a “creating equitable organizations workshop,” the work can’t end there. Improvement plans should be organized and timelined with disciplined cycles of collective reflection, measurement of progress, and refinement of plans to guarantee shared learning. It’s common to have cycles of 6-12 months to allow for meaningful and measurable progress. Consider the following strategies:

  • Communicate the duration of the first cycle and commit to repeating selected aspects of the qualitative and quantitative methods applied in the baseline culture assessment at the end of it (see the example timeline below).
  • Start with the end in mind and set targets for improvement in each cycle. Capture improvement targets and plans in defined goals; track and communicate progress regularly.
  • Frequently share examples of Constructive behavior and results achieved by individuals, teams, and the overall organization.
  • Senior leaders must show they are committed to learning as part of their development plans.They must visibly and humbly listen, build relationships, and translate what they learn into action.
  • Focus the qualitative assessment, at the end of the cycle, on prioritized feedback about what’s improved, what hasn’t, and why.
  • Conduct culture and climate pulse surveys every 6 – 12 months and full remeasures every 18-24 months to understand how the culture and climate are evolving.
  • Hold involvement meetings or company meetings with large groups at the end of each cycle to share progress, obtain feedback, and refine improvement plans for the next cycle.

This graphic is a high-level, example timeline.

DEI timeline plan

Commit to Change and Take the First Step

The four phases are designed to support the connection of shared learning and results individually and collectively. Many leaders do not realize that the clearer they are about the culture and changes they’re targeting, the easier it is to make decisions, prioritize, set goals, and lead an organization with certainty and consistency.

There is nothing more challenging and rewarding as a leader than evolving your culture with intent. It’s worth the investment of time and energy, but you need a roadmap and, in some cases, a guide. Applying the four phases for culture and performance development may not guarantee success, but it will support learning in groups, improved clarity and alignment, and management of a comprehensive and shared roadmap for connecting culture, diversity, and performance improvement.

Change starts by deciding to take the first step. Take that step with confidence by applying a disciplined process and measures for diversity management through the lens of culture. And don’t forget, you don’t have to go it alone. Those creating equitable organizations with expert guidance get further faster.

“If you think there is going to be real conversations in this country, or in companies, or organizations around equity, diversity, and inclusivity while you remain comfortable, that is not going to happen. And it shouldn’t happen.”
~Brene Brown


Learn more about improving your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts through the lens of culture. See our diversity, equity, and inclusion page for information about how the comprehensive OCI/OEI (culture and climate) assessment plus diversity supplementary module can help you gain a common language, prioritize improvements, and measure the progress of culture-related change. DEI consultants and change agents: see our culture accreditation workshop page to learn how you can add the OCI/OEI to your change efforts.

To embark on your next diversity and inclusion culture project, reach out to Human Synergistics now.

About the Author

Avatar photo
Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.