Shifting the Paradigm: Disruptive Dialogue in the Workplace

Disruptive dialogue denotes an intentional interruption of business as usual -- an abandonment of the surface-level conversations around identity and difference in the workplace. Organizations need to create intentional brave spaces where everyone at all levels can engage in authentic conversations around identity.

Diversity HeaderEarly in my career, I was once called irreverent after confronting a senior leader about some very conscious bias in the organization. It was a jarring response that left me questioning my place in the organization. Was I not supposed to ask critical questions about culture and behavior? Didn’t they have an interest in knowing when incidents contrary to the values of the company occurred? Didn’t they want to make an investment in diversity, equity and inclusion?

As I’ve developed, both personally and professionally, I’ve grown firmly in my resolve: I absolutely will not apologize for confronting longstanding practices and questioning people when bias shows itself.

Shifting the Paradigm

Ulysses SmithAt this year’s Communities and Council’s Forum, CompTIA’s Advancing Diversity in Technology community announced its theme: Shifting the Paradigm. This is the opportunity for the industry to take an introspective look at its practices and efforts to improve diversity over the years. It’s an opportunity to move away from haphazard approaches and disproven concepts toward more data-informed decision-making. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to shift the conversation and the practice to focus on equity.

ADIT kicked off with a session focused on breaking down the myth of the pipeline problem and developing a deeper understanding of what it means to be an ally. My personal favorite, however, is the conversation around disruptive dialogue beyond unconscious bias. Whether you are leading an SMB or working as an individual contributor at a large organization, the lessons learned here are pivotal to establishing a culture of belonging in the workplace.

Authenticity in the Workplace

We’ve long discussed the concepts of belonging (the internal feeling that you are a valued and essential part of a team) and bringing one’s authentic self into the workplace (the feeling that you do not have to hide parts of your identity to fully participate in opportunities in the workplace). What we have neglected to discuss, however, is how to get to a point where these concepts become a reality in the most practical sense. One such tool is dialogue.

Dialogue is an underutilized art. Unlike debate and discussion, where parties seek to win an argument or persuade others, dialogue seeks a shared understanding. Such a shared understanding does not mean agreement. Rather, it is a mutual understanding of the experiences and identities that have informed a perspective. It is us trying to see the world through the lens of someone else in order to understand. The concept of dialogue is not new, though it is often cast aside in favor of debate and discussion. But why the label of ‘disruptive’?

Aligned with the idea of shifting the paradigm, ‘disruptive’ dialogue denotes an intentional interruption of business as usual -- an abandonment of the surface-level conversations around identity and difference in the workplace. Because here’s the thing about dialogue: It's meant to interrupt the status quo. It’s both critical and constructive. It requires all parties to suspend power dynamics and assumptions. It requires active listening with empathy and the willingness to engage across difference. It requires courage.

Not only must we be prepared to confront bias at the organizational level, we must be equally prepared to enter into uncomfortable conversations about bias on the individual level and in real time. Organizations have to create intentional brave spaces where everyone at all levels can engage in authentic conversations around identity. There must be an investment in formal and informal learning opportunities to recognize, challenge, and mitigate bias. Most importantly, people should be encouraged to make the critical connections between our identities and our interactions with colleagues, and the impact we each have on the product or service of the business.

Starting the Movement

Modeling the behavior you want to see is one way to provoke a culture change. During our CCF session, we heard from Melissa Cameron from AT&T, who shared their DINE program with us. The program consists of four core components: Discover differences, Include one another, Navigate new perspectives, and Eat.

DINE brings pairs or small groups of colleagues together over a meal, where they can get exposure to someone who has a different background or role at the company. They are able to discuss current events, their individual experiences, or anything else they would like to share with their colleagues. The impact of this is twofold. First, people heighten their awareness of others’ perspectives and develop a shared understanding. Second, that awareness raises a consciousness in subsequent settings, where employees are able to voice when a perspective is missing or someone is not being included in decision-making who should be there. A bonus benefit is that people share a great meal together.

DINE is a great example of an organization implementing a formal program that creates informal, yet intentional spaces for employees to learn from one another. These are the conditions for dialogue, and the beginning of a shift in culture. You don’t need to launch a grandiose new structure or program to leverage some of the same benefits of programs like DINE. Small, casual gestures like sharing a meal with someone new sets the tone for inclusion and belonging.

Download the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Plan for SMBs, and learn the importance of inclusive cultures, the state of diversity in tech and how your business can plan for diversity.

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