How do you change behaviours in a small workplace?

Providing a 'fair go' is part of Australia's cultural DNA, but it is also good for business – if you acknowledge the growing body of evidence from high-profile consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte.

The consensus from these groups is that companies who demonstrate inclusion through racial, ethnic and gender diversity, to name a few, perform better.

But while the commercial benefits of a diverse workforce have been proven for large organisations (who can dedicate sizeable budgets to diversity and inclusion programs), are the same benefits true for small businesses with a handful of staff?

According to Sarah Platts, Director of leadership and communication consultancy Catalyst, the answer is yes.

“Small business owners are recognising the commercial opportunity in diversity. When an employee can bring their whole self to the workplace, they will feel more engaged and will be more effective in their work.

“The benefits of this engagement are amplified in a small business, where people often play multiple, critical roles in driving business performance.”

The problem for small business owners, Platts says, is simply knowing where to start on their diversity journey.

“The worst thing you can do is appoint the ‘Diversity Police’, she says. “Diversity isn’t about policing behaviour. It is about being human, and allowing others to be human, too.”

According to Platts, the two biggest barriers to achieving a diverse workforce are the unconscious bias at play and lack of inclusive behavior.

“As a business leader, if you can understand your own biases – which influence the decisions you make, the language you use and your behaviour at work – then you can have a powerful impact on the everyday experience at work for all. And that, in turn, drives culture and the business bottom line.”

With that in mind, Platts recommends a simple two-step approach to workplace diversity for small and medium business owners:

  1. Be a role model; and
  2. Establish practices that are best for your business.

First, be a role model

Platts says this is the hard part because it’s not about advocating for a set of values – it’s about leading by example through important changes in everyday behaviour.

“This is about those instances when the conversation you overhear at reception or the actions the team takes don’t match the values on the wall.”

No one sets out to be a hypocrite, she says. But the language and behaviour we use – whether subtle or direct – can reinforce the dominant culture in a workplace, and make others feel excluded in the process.

“What might seem like a small comment or a comment made in jest to some, can add up and weigh heavily on others.”

“The example we hear often in organisations is the one where a parent leaves at 5pm to pick up a child and a colleague says casually: ‘There they go taking another half day again.’

“Comments like these erode the perception and feeling of value of that person when made repeatedly,” she says.

Platts says leaders should develop awareness of the factors that contribute to personal assumptions and stereotypes – including education, environment, past experiences, role models, and even genetics and physiology.

Once leaders have that awareness, Platts encourages them to “call it” when they see or hear non-inclusive language or behaviour in the workplace.

“In this situation, you could say something like ‘thanks for all your hard work today’, to highlight the employee’s efficiency and effort. You could also be a role model for working parents by leaving at 5pm alongside your employee from time to time.

“There is a difference between shifting thinking and a negative response that makes people feel bad, or get defensive,” Platts notes. “‘Calling it’ in a positive way and role modelling positive behaviour educates people and encourages a necessary change in thinking or actions to be more inclusive.”

“The best thing about being a role model is that you don’t have to be perfect. I’ve seen plenty of examples where business leaders have called out inappropriate behaviour and later, in the same meeting, they’ve called themselves out for the same behaviour. This is the change and humility required.

“It’s not about being perfect. It’s about promoting a culture where people can stop the conversation, state the problem they see or hear, and then shift the perspective and provide another way of looking at the conversation or issue.”

Establish best practices

This is the technical part of workplace diversity and arguably much easier to implement.

For this to work, Platts says, business owners need to make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.

“Don’t delegate it. Be the leader, and genuinely engage. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything, but it does mean you have to set the tone and be visibly present, demonstrating learning and changing behaviour.”

She says the best place to start is with a diversity statement or policy.

“This can be as simple as a vision statement, such as ‘We strive to create a culture where differences are valued, recognised and utilised. We believe that embracing the range of perspectives that diversity brings will bring more innovative solutions, broader opportunity and create a better place to work.’”

The next step is to choose employees to be your diversity advocates. They will be the ‘champions’ who will advise the business on which policies they feel can be improved to make people feel more included.

The trick here, Platts says, is to pick initiatives that you feel will make a difference.

It could be a recruitment process, such as reviewing job descriptions so that roles can be shaped in different ways to accommodate flexible working hours, or blind screening CVs to pre-empt stereotypes and assumptions based on names or postcodes.

One example of a best practice for your business, Platts says, could be finding ways to engage more men in the discussion around gender equality at work and how they can be role models, not just at work but in their daily lives.

More work to do

A ‘fair go’ comes in many shapes and forms in Australian workplaces.

“While we are making progress in awareness targets for diversity and inclusion, particularly in large businesses, the awareness now needs to translate to action to effect real change,” Platts says.

“The reality is that this stuff is really hard. It’s easy to stand up and advocate for five minutes during a presentation. But to truly change behaviours requires leadership and personal focus. And that can happen in any business – large or small.”

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