Behavioural & Cultural Change: The new face of DE&I  

8 August, 2023, 15:50pm GMT

Erica Birtles

By Erica Birtles

HR leader, recruiter, organisational change manager illustration

In recent months, we’ve seen droves of DE&I leaders leaving their roles at some of the world’s biggest organisations. There might be multiple factors at play prompting their exit. But what has become apparent is that DE&I initiatives are being pushed down the list of organisational priorities, despite pressures on businesses to adopt a social conscience. As result, DE&I executives, whose purpose it is to make change happen within the company, are left feeling unsupported and undervalued.

This is surprising, considering the wealth of research extolling the benefits of diversity and inclusion for organisations. It leads me to believe that businesses see these DE&I roles as ‘do-gooder’ positions, a check box to be ticked, and don’t expect the role to bring as much value to the company as other departments. 

I believe this logic is flawed. Organisations need to start considering DE&I executives not as advocates of diversity and inclusion, but as strategic cultural and behavioural change leaders. Here’s why: 

Why do things need to change at all? 

“Many of the boundaries that used to provide the structure of work have been dismantled. Now the boundaries that remain are much more focused on human dynamics, and how people interact with and engage with work.” — Chris Ernst, CLO, Workday 

The global pandemic was a ‘before-and-after’ moment, meaning there was life before Covid and life after Covid. It left many businesses reeling, trying to keep up with the constant changes not only in the market but also in their workforce. The Ukraine war and a cost-of-living crisis later, businesses are still trying to keep up. But there will always be something new affecting how organisations are run. Therefore, rather than waiting for change to happen, organisational leaders must take charge.  

Agility is key to surviving the ebb and flow of changing global markets. If Covid is any example, many businesses weren’t prepared to have all their workers work from home and rushed to supply them with laptops and software to help them do their job remotely.  Suddenly, meetings happened over Zoom, people were spending more time with their families, and priorities shifted for many. Work culture was forced to change. Yet, business leaders struggled to manage that change and their newly remote workforce.

This is just a single example of how rigid organisational culture and behaviour fail in the modern day. To be agile, businesses must operate an adaptable organisational structure. This means considering the agility of not only their workforce, but their sales, marketing, customer experience, etc. 

“Highly successful agile transformations typically delivered around 30 percent gains in efficiency, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and operational performance; made the organization five to ten times faster; and turbocharged innovation.” McKinsey & Co.  

Cultural and behavioural change is the first step to business agility 

“Organizations and workers should challenge prior assumptions and adopt a new set of fundamentals built for a dynamic, boundaryless world, rather than the stable, compartmentalized one we are leaving behind.” – Deloitte, Global Human Capital Trends 2023 Report

The world of business is constantly changing, but many businesses still resist. The smart ones are organisations that are looking to co-create new products, new rules, new boundaries and innovation with their workers. The businesses that will fall behind are those that try to maintain rigid command and control systems when workers are gaining influence and becoming increasingly accountable for outcomes.    

It means that organisations looking to unlock their workforce ecosystem and maximise their potential must adapt their strategies, resourcing approach, processes, and technology to support the ‘new normal’. They should also consider a diverse workforce ecosystem consisting of workers of all types, i.e. employees, freelancers, independent contractors, etc., to enhance skill sets and agility within their teams. Essentially, to accelerate growth, innovation and agility, businesses need to adopt new cultural and behavioural norms.

Becoming aware of ‘blind spots’  

The challenge is that there is a blind spot in today’s organisational leadership, as highlighted by Otto Sharmer in his book, Theory U. He calls this spot the “‘interior conditions’, the sources from which we operate both individually and collectively.” Using the metaphor of a farm field, Sharmer explains that these conditions are split into two dimensions; the visible (what’s growing above the ground) and the invisible (what’s growing beneath in the soil).  

In modern organisational culture, leadership tends to forget the invisible plane. Sharmer argues that it is the job of business leaders to become aware of this blind spot, shift the inner place from which they operate, and cultivate the soil of their business. He then goes on to say that leadership should be considered as ‘the capacity of a system to co-sense and co-shape the future’ and ‘everyone must act as a steward for the larger ecosystem with a social grammar (language), social technology (methods and tools) and a new narrative of social change to achieve it in a more reliable, distributed, and intentional way.

DE&I executives are cultural and behavioural change strategists 

This is where DE&I leaders are well positioned. Already challenged with the task of changing the organisational culture, these people are in a unique position as leaders of attitudinal and behavioural change. However, the current perception from businesses that these individuals are solely useful to achieve diversity goals is misguided.  

Instead, organisations should see DE&I leaders as cultural and behavioural change strategists who are responsible for affecting organisational outcomes in a major way. With an investment into these executives and adopting new cultural norms within their business, organisations are more likely to see more agility, innovation and growth as a direct result. 

It’s time DE&I leaders were considered more than just ‘do-gooders’. Their contributions lie far beyond hitting a diversity quota. But cultural and behavioural change doesn’t happen overnight, and many organisational leaders are happy to make little bits of progress rather than trying to achieve perfection all at once.  

Nevertheless, surveys like Deloitte’s Global Human Capital 2023 Report show that businesses are likely to stay behind the curve if they ignore the need to change their organisational behaviours. The reality is that things will never stay as they are. There may be another pandemic, recession or conflict that once again requires us to change how we work to change. So, it is paramount that business leaders take behavioural and cultural change seriously to make their organisation as agile as possible.  

DE&I leaders (or behavioural and cultural change strategists) are critical to organisational success. They understand the problem. They have the experience. They are experienced strategists able to implement strategies and processes that help drive innovation, growth and agility within organisations.