For Real Diversity & Inclusion, Follow Black Panther and Celebrate Authenticity

For Diversity & Inclusion efforts to really work, employees need to feel free to be their true selves. Organizations can foster that authenticity through culture and space.
“…Diversity can only help you do things in a new, and unique, and fresh, and exciting way. If you do that, everyone will notice it, and appreciate it, and support it.” Kevin Feige, President, Marvel Studios

This year has brought a tsunami of unhappy headlines, yet it still was shocking and sad to learn of the death of the brilliant Chadwick Boseman, star of Black Panther (among other movies). Black Panther foreshadowed our current conversations around diversity and inclusion when it shattered both box office records and cultural preconceptions in the entertainment industry.

When Black Panther exploded into theaters, it rocketed past a billion dollars in ticket sales and became a genuine cultural phenomenon. The movie went on to win three Oscars – the first Academy Awards ever for Marvel Studios. Ruth Carter won for Best Costume Design, becoming the first Black woman to win in the category. Hannah Beachler, who won for Best Production Design, was not only the first woman of color to win in that category, but also was the first to be nominated.

Celebrate Authenticity

Black Panther was just the latest example of Marvel banking on a “The Other” type of character that might have been considered a gamble a decade ago. For many years, Hollywood turned away from movies that didn’t have a white male lead, believing they weren’t as big of a box office draw. But with movies like Black Panther, audiences are starting to prove them wrong. But it’s not enough just to have a diverse cast and crew. People need to feel free to be authentic – and that’s one of the reasons why Black Panther worked so well.

When we consider diversity and inclusion at the office, something often missing is an appreciation of authenticity. As the corporate diversity & inclusion consultant Joe Gerstandt wrote in an excellent blog post on the subject, “The work of inclusion should be about the inclusion of authentic, true, whole people who are naturally going to be different from each other. We can’t just hire people who are different from each other; we have to allow them to actually be different at work.”

Decades’ worth of studies have shown that similarity attracts. It’s a phenomenon known as homophily: Being one’s true self, disclosing elements of one’s personal life, and forming social connections are easier within one’s own group than they are across a demographic boundary such as racial background.

For many people of color and women, being authentic and transparent can be challenging. We remain unsure and/or untrusting that our workplaces will embrace and accept our authentic, true selves. We often resort to wearing our masks, or “covering," as a means of self-protection and gaining acceptance.

A Deloitte study that reported 83 percent of LGB individuals, 79 percent of Blacks, 67 percent of women of color, 66 percent of women and 63 percent of Hispanics consistently “covered” in their workplace. Among straight White males: 45 percent covered at work.

Most research focuses on Blacks, but this dynamic applies to all those who find themselves in the minority at work, including working mothers, older employees at youth-oriented start-ups, and people whose conservative political views make them feel like outliers in organizations dominated by liberals or progressives.

Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino provides her compelling revelations in the Harvard Business Review article, “Let Your Workers Rebel.” Gino explains the results of a survey she conducted with more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries: “Nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform, and more than half said that people in their organizations do not question the status quo.”

Another survey of more than 1,000 employees in a variety of industries found less than 10 percent of people work in companies that encourage nonconformity. In summary, according to Gino: “Organizations consciously or unconsciously urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation.”

Fostering a Truly Diverse & Inclusive Culture

Does your community really welcome diversity and inclusion? Simply hiring members of a minority group won’t ensure that they feel comfortable or equipped to build the relationships necessary for advancement. There is no generic prescription. As changes unfold in our industry sectors and our communities, organizations that can adapt their culture nimbly will capture the new opportunities.

There’s no generic prescription, and adaptation is essential. For that, space matters. Key space questions for your organization to consider include:

·     Does your space enhance or undermine your organization’s mission?

·     Does it reflect your identity?

·     Does your space promote the workforce seeing itself as a community?

·     Does it reinforce your culture and your brand?

Your workspace should reflect an understanding of the authentic personality and culture of your workforce, including religious customs and working preferences.

Your organization could make significant progress toward a truly diverse and inclusive culture by adopting two new rules:

1.     Our culture shall be a strategic priority, and our workspaces shall reflect the culture – the attitudes and value system – of the organization.

2.     Our workspace shall be a strategic priority, and as the enterprise changes, adapts, and reinvents itself, so too shall our workspace.

What Chadwick Boseman and Black Panther did in bigger and bolder ways than we’ve ever seen before is celebrate diversity and inclusion – authentically. The celebration was apparent in every aspect of the movie, from costumes and set design to the actors’ dialects. I’ll be re-watching the movie many more times, and lamenting Chadwick Boseman’s death in each.

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