Our Guide to the Summer 2021 Issue

These summaries will help you navigate our summer 2021 lineup.

Reading Time: 8 min 


Fighting Backlash to Racial Equity Efforts

Rosalind M. Chow, L. Taylor Phillips, Brian S. Lowery, and Miguel M. Unzueta

As the U.S. faced a new racial reckoning last year, many corporations
committed to dramatically increase their focus on racial equality — then the hard work of making changes to live up to those promises began.

Not surprisingly, diversity and equity initiatives, which include cultivating a critical understanding of systemic racism, are meeting resistance. Those who are benefiting from the current system tend to oppose changing it, and people have a basic need to see themselves in a positive light and as deserving of what they have. Corporate leaders must speak to two internal constituent groups: employees who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) and their allies; and White employees who may not accept the idea of structural racism.

Understanding why racial equity initiatives provoke opposition is the first step toward helping an organization through cultural transformation. The authors offer three ways of dealing with backlash: countering denial and distortion with data, countering distancing and distortion through collaboration, and countering distortion with a vision grounded in justice. Ultimately, leaders must leverage our human inclination to think of ourselves as good, along with our need to think of our systems as fair and just, so that people see a role for themselves in the dismantling of racist systems and in actively engaging with anti-racism efforts.

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Cultivating an Inclusive Culture Through Personal Networks

Rob Cross, Kevin Oakes, and Connor Cross

Many organizations have ramped up their investments in diversity, equity, and inclusion — largely in the form of anti-bias training, employee resource groups, mentoring programs, and added DEI functions and roles. But organizations must also assess employee experience: If people aren’t equitably developed and promoted once they come on board, they’re not as likely to stay.

Research shows that for employees of color, their network connections — that is, their interactions and collaborations both within and outside of their functional groups — can accelerate their rates of promotion and increase retention.

Especially important to effectively integrating underrepresented groups into the organization are the ties these employees develop with peers. The authors found that receiving career advice and feedback from colleagues who were at most one level up in the organization was more important than getting mentoring from senior-level people. Organizations can also support DEI efforts by mitigating implicit bias when it does occur, using network data to build more effective employee resource groups, and restructuring mentoring programs.

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Why Putting On Blinders Can Help Us See More Clearly

Sean Fath, Richard P. Larrick, Jack B. Soll, and Susan Zhu

Few managers would admit to deciding which job candidates to interview based on their names or which projects to fund based on a presenter’s gender or physical attractiveness. But research shows that decision makers are poor judges of their general susceptibility to bias and in fact are vulnerable to exactly these types of bias.

The research suggests that evaluators’ impulse to access potentially biasing information is often driven by curiosity or an honest, but incorrect, belief that biasing information could be helpful in making a fair decision. One way to reduce the potential for bias is to adopt blinding, a decision-making strategy that limits the information that is included for consideration in an evaluation.

Companywide blinding strategies are rare, but even with only informal blinding practices, it’s possible to reap some of the benefits. This article suggests ways in which managers can make fairer and more accurate assessments by proactively blinding themselves to irrelevant details and data that are potentially biasing.

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Why Good Arguments Make Better Strategy

Jesper B. Sørensen and Glenn R. Carroll

Strategy is hard to do well. An anonymous 2019 survey found that only 37% of 6,000 executive respondents thought their company had a well-defined strategy, and only 35% believed that their company’s strategy would lead to success.

In an adaptation from their new book Making Great Strategy: Arguing for Organizational Advantage (Columbia University Press, 2021), the authors argue that creating consistently great strategies demands formal processes, constructive debate, and logical rigor.

Constructive debate can be the best way to develop strategy, especially in groups, provided that the arguments follow established rules of engagement rooted in the principles of deductive logic. Great strategy demands the exchange and vetting of ideas.

Such debates, however, need to be orchestrated. This requires thinking through the purpose of the conversation, who should participate, what the participants’ roles are, where the session should take place, and how the conversation should be opened. Leaders can use strategy maps — visual depictions of a strategy argument that use boxes and arrows to represent the connections between ideas — to examine the underlying logic of their alternatives.

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The Practices That Set Learning Organizations Apart

David G. Collings and John McMackin

Organizations are struggling to keep pace with the new skills needed in their workforces, and that’s only been accelerated by the pandemic. These pressures are putting an increased premium on learning and development.

Research into companies building workforce skills for a tech-driven future finds that the most committed demonstrate a common set of best practices for learning. These practices include the establishment of a skills baseline, an alignment of learning with an organization’s strategic direction, increased resources for the learning team, individualized learning pathways, and flexibility in execution.

The disruptions caused by the pandemic have also shown companies how rapidly the priorities and requirements for skill building can change. This volatility challenges learning teams to be responsive and agile.

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Turbulent Times Demand Dynamic Rules

David R. Hannah, Christopher D. Zatzick, and Jan Kietzmann

Many of today’s organizational practices were created for comparatively predictable and stable circumstances, and many have turned out to be ill-suited to volatile times. We’re in an era of uncertainty that demands new organizational perspectives.

The authors offer a road map for creating dynamic rules that can change through collaboration, experimentation, and learning. These rules include increasing employee involvement in their design and embracing experimentation — in other words, being willing to accept a rule that is “good enough.” Organizations also need to conduct rule audits. Similar to a financial audit, a rule audit evaluates a company’s existing policies to assess whether they need updating to fit the current environment.

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The Courage to Be Candid

Jim Detert and Evan Bruno

It takes a surprising amount of bravery for employees to point out ways their organization can learn and improve. Challenging bosses about strategic moves or operating policies, speaking honestly to peers or subordinates who aren’t pulling their weight, making and owning bold decisions — these are acts of workplace courage.

People have deep-seated and legitimate fears about speaking up, including rational calculations of self-interest. The risks can often seem to outweigh the rewards.

Leaders can make it easier for people to speak up by actively encouraging and rewarding behaviors that cultivate productive candor and making it safer to display. They also need to understand the challenge and then model and support everyday opportunities for growth.

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Rethinking Industry’s Role in a National Emergency

ManMohan S. Sodhi and Christopher S. Tang

Photos of doctors and nurses wearing garbage bags to protect themselves from infection are among the most indelible images of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also highlight the limitations of the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) — the essential medical supplies the country has on hand for emergencies, such as personal protective equipment and ventilators.

The shortcomings of the SNS can be remedied before the next large-scale public health emergency. Instead of planning to meet huge but rare demand spikes by holding massive amounts of just-in-case inventory — which would be prohibitively expensive — the SNS must better plan for just-in-time production to meet demand surges. It can do this through a combination of inventory, capacity, and capability.

Frequent epidemics would be served by using existing inventory. Less frequent minor pandemics would be served by backup capacity to quickly manufacture more inventory. And rare severe pandemics would be served by a domestic standby manufacturing capability.

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How Volunteerism Enhances Workplace Skills

Amanda Shantz and Kiera Dempsey-Brench

While traditional volunteer activities, such as helping at a soup kitchen, tend to leverage general competencies, skills-based volunteering involves applying job-related expertise in specialized areas such as marketing and IT. It is a rapidly growing way for businesses to engage in corporate citizenship, and it often enables participants to nurture new skills.

But the idea of fostering learning through service is often controversial. Programs can backfire if employees believe the real aim of a volunteer program is for the company to profit through improved employee performance.

Employers should clearly articulate why they’re supporting skills-based volunteering and make time for volunteers to reflect on their experiences. They should also position volunteering at the heart of leadership development programs while being transparent about the multiple purposes of participating in partnerships with nonprofits.

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The Overlooked Partners That Can Build Your Talent Pipeline

Nichola J. Lowe

A group of institutions known as workforce intermediaries are helping U.S. employers invest in skill building for workers on the lowest rungs of the labor market. These intermediaries include extensions of community-based nonprofit organizations, labor unions, state-funded workforce and community college systems, trade associations, and industrial extension programs.

For instance, in industrial cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, workforce intermediaries have long and successful track records of helping small and medium-sized companies create internal career ladders and work-based learning systems, often in service of diversity and inclusion goals.

Companies that work with these community-based nonprofits can develop better long-term skill strategies and enlarge their talent pools.

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