By Mary Nations and Jennifer Jones-Patulli
Many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives focus on bringing certainty to the important and sometimes volatile world of workplace relationships. They do this by drawing on affirmative action, sensitivity and bias awareness training, and updating codes of conduct. These are among many important efforts that address real structural needs for change. However, DEI initiatives that rely solely on structural change are missing a crucial element: relational change.
We see this need for relational change when individuals in the workplace receive microaggressions, feel silenced, and/or experience patterns of exclusion or lack of opportunity. The real challenge is that no policy or initiative can compel people to see each other in meaningful and generative ways that would reduce or eliminate such behavior.
Structural shifts from DEI initiatives are helpful in setting conditions for organizations to effectively manage DEI challenges. However, true and lasting change happens when the members of the organization breathe life and power into these initiatives with their everyday interactions.
Relational change must happen at the individual level.
Our brains are constantly searching for patterns and meaning. It creates meaning by making associations within the patterns it is spotting. When you are surrounded by people with whom you share a meaningful relationship, you often have intimate knowledge of the relational patterns and what they mean as they interact. This gives you a sense of control and certainty over yourself, and comfort with the other because you can predict how to engage in order to stay engaged.
What does this look like in the workplace? Often, predictability and certainty are highly regarded and even rewarded for the stability they bring. But over time, relationships with too much certainty and predictability get stuck in routine thinking, creating inertia that lacks the energy of new potential.
Yet newness or difference can disrupt the comfort of familiar relationships. When a situation or person is new to you, you lack ready-made clarity and must stretch into new ways of knowing and being. You watch for patterns and try to make meaning most accurately based on assumptions and previous experiences. Sometimes this works, but the assumptions can also be wildly wrong, even damaging to yourself and others. Without a meaningful reference point from which to engage, you might try to shape the new experience to fit your own expectations, to regain the familiar ease of certainty.
This natural response, in addition to being potentially harmful, limits your opportunity to learn new things about others and new situations, and to also learn new things about yourself. You might proceed on the basis of fear, not only of the other but of your ineptness with the unknown. Either way keeps people stuck in limited potential, with no adaptive capacity to create new potential. Such a stagnant environment is no place for successful work with others. The only way to change this is by embracing uncertainty.
This is a problem, though — we are generally not appreciative of uncertainty in the workplace. Uncertainty is sometimes associated with weak leadership, indecisiveness, and lack of qualification. Even so, uncertainty is a core element to essential relationship building.
Think about the process of meeting a new friend or falling in love. These are uncertain interactions where you might wonder, “Do they like me?” “What are they thinking?” “What can I do to surprise or impress them?”
The uncertainty that comes with a new friendly or romantic relationship keeps us feeling curious and open to the multiple possibilities the other or the relationship might bring. So why wouldn’t you want to experience this at work with colleagues, especially when they bring new languages, experiences, and/or cultural practice or wisdom to the interactions and workplace? Why wouldn’t you want to be curious and open to the possibilities that come from this space of uncertainty?
In new situations, or with new people, using inquiry in tandem with your brain’s natural tendency toward pattern spotting and meaning-making will allow you to turn uncertainty into possibility. The space between certainty and uncertainty is ripe with possibility. Harvesting this potential requires inquiry beyond your tried-and-true way of being.
How. . .
Consider a slider where you can explore this space between:
What questions come up in different areas?:
- Where do I feel most comfortable? Why?
- Where do I feel least comfortable? Why? How might I get more experience here?
- What helps me move the slider as needed for different situations?
It may be difficult to get adept in understanding the breadth and depth of this full spectrum of certainty to uncertainty. Here are three more sliders to help hone your inquiry:
Some situations call for your sound judgment right away. You may have an immediate need — for instance, if you feel threatened, your quick judgment may protect you when you flee rather than stay in danger. Yet sometimes quick judgment locks us into seeing a situation in a narrow way. Curiosity, on the other hand, can open up different ways of seeing and interacting.
Being in judgment keeps you in a small space; curiosity creates a more expansive place. You may assume that you have all the right people together for the project…what if you got curious and asked others “Who should I include from a different background?” Anywhere on the slider is valid — the goal is to be conscious and intentional exploring the broad spectrum, not just be stuck in one place of comfort.
When being asked to consider a new approach, or when listening to someone whose ideas sound oppositional to yours, it is natural to feel defensive. You may defend a team member when another team makes a suggestion about that person’s input. Yet upon further reflection, you begin to see the situation more broadly, including the other team’s perspective. Those positions may help you consider how and why you think the way YOU do — and that understanding could be essential to being able to expand your thinking further. When something is not broken, there is often no impetus to change…yet change is the only way we learn and develop new skills and opportunities. Being willing to explore new options, to listen and explore new perspectives, and to reflect on our own defenses opens up possibilities well beyond the status quo.
When making meaning, assumptions are often our starting place. We may test assumptions and get validation or resort to having to start over. Questions, however, are always suitable and are both the way to challenge assumptions and bump into new discoveries. You may assume that your feedback to a peer was heard as intended, but unless you ask, you may not know the impact of that feedback.
By this point, you may see that the left side of these sliders is normal and we all live here at times. The right side of the sliders brings in more uncertainty, but perhaps you can now appreciate that uncertainty is the birthplace of new. These sliders of inquiry help us explore our use of certainty and uncertainty in our interrelationships.
Our ability to shift organizational patterns profoundly in DEI happens every day with every workplace interaction. This means that alongside the structural shifts, an organization must also support relational shifts. We believe the best way to make relational shifts is by leveraging uncertainty and being in inquiry.