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How can coaching help advance workplace DEIB?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Over recent years, we have seen a dramatic increase in efforts to improve workplace diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). Nevertheless, organisations have struggled to establish the kind of best practice initiatives that lead to real change. HR-driven guidelines and protocols, carefully worded corporate values statements, and senior leader-led townhalls extolling the business case for DEIB are important. However, they are not sufficient. What really matters in an inclusive organisational culture are the actual behaviours which are played out in everyday workplace interactions and decision-making. This means improving the quality of thinking. Even if workplaces understand the need for organisation-wide, collective responsibility for embracing DEIB, change is hard to achieve without the mechanisms in place to enable individuals to take corrective action. The human brain is hard-wired for belonging, often meaning we seek out those who most closely resemble us. Without the appropriate tools in place, old habits and assumptions rooted in bias reduce the effectiveness of any pledged commitment to DEIB. This is where coaching comes in. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.” True coaching is a relationship of equals, a process of co-inquiry and co-creation between coach and client. It gives voice to the client in a way that immediately says, “I see you and I hear you”. It personalises the learning journey in a way that traditional group training, which assumes the same starting point for everyone, cannot. Good training can be excellent for increasing awareness but often stops there. Coaching goes one step further; it not only generates awareness but equips individuals with the tools to make sustainable behaviour change. By its very nature it empowers, accompanying individuals on their journey to establishing the right questions, and then seeking out the answers. It facilitates discovery and growth. This is what makes coaching for DEIB so powerful; if true inclusion seeks to ask and understand, rather than make assumptions about individual challenges, wants and needs, then coaching is central to this process. Especially in high performance environments, the ambition to “know it all” is common; in fact it is often viewed as a prerequisite to gain the desired “expert status”. Coaching, however, moves mindsets from “know it all” to “learn it all”; if enough people within an organisation are coached, this individual mindset shift then become an internal culture shift. Here are some of the ways in which coaching helps advance DEIB efforts:

  1. Storytelling for leaders It is becoming more and more common for leaders to have formal DEIB responsibilities within their remit. For years, senior professionals have leant on the business case for DEIB to increase client engagement, employee retention, and lateral recruitment. Many organisations now have sophisticated data collection and analysis mechanisms in place to show their diversity statistics. However, we now recognise that whilst quantitative data is fundamental for establishing credibility and measuring change when it comes to conversations around DEIB, we need stories to change hearts and minds. Above and beyond corporate blurb expressing commitment to increasing DEIB, leaders need to be able to articulate their ‘why’. Stakeholders, in particular employees, are now looking to senior leaders to engage with them on a human level about why DEIB matters. Working with a coach can help leaders navigate their unique challenges when it comes to DEIB and articulate their personal interest and dedication to bringing about change.

  2. Evolving inner voice We know that the way we experience the world is shaped by language, and there is no language more powerful than that which we use to speak to ourselves. DEIB work is human work, and that involves the necessary deep dive into who we are as individuals, warts and all. The process of holding up a mirror, working on our emotional intelligence, surfacing our internal narrative, and looking at it with curiosity rather than judgement allows for a deeper, more compassionate connection with self. That connection affects how we interact with those around us; it allows us to think more deeply about the way we communicate and the ways we show the extent to which we value and respect others. It is common for senior leaders and HR teams to ask employees to bring their full selves to work. However, psychological safety is not assured purely because the organisation says it is so. Experience has shown me that the unique nature of coaching can help underrepresented employees, who often experience heightened emotional challenges due to the continuous navigation of systemic and structural hurdles. It supports individuals in identifying how to show up in a way that feels safe, as well as to more confidently lean into the strengths and uniqueness that they often feel obliged to play down in order to fit in.

  3. Inclusively managing diverse teams Coaching is a conversation that requires the coach to engage in generous, fully attentive listening, both to what is being said, and to what is not. A pre-requisite for real listening is holding individuals in high regard. Although effective coaching means that a coach cannot be too invested in the outcome of the coaching programme, as that may link to a desire to save or rescue the client, it establishes a level of respect for the person in front of them. Coaching encourages the kind of honesty and transparency that provides the ideal foundations to support the client’s learning, development and performance. By experiencing the benefits of working with someone who sees their potential and partners with them to harness it, there is a trickle-down effect; clients start to employ coaching behaviours in their workplace relationships and whilst managing teams. They begin to understand the need to carve out space for diverse voices; to question with curiosity rather than judgement; and to realise that there is no one size fits all approach to effective management.

“Changing hearts and minds” may be clichéd but is nevertheless vital, and skilled coaching is a proven vehicle for the journey towards the goal of a truly diverse and inclusive organisation.

Inclusive Group Associate and Certified Coach Laura Simpson provides Inclusive Coaching programmes, empowering leaders with both insights and practical tools to foster inclusivity and respect within their workplace. For further information, please don't hesitate to contact us.

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