M111: Strength Through Diversity — How Differences Build Resiliency and Project Success

By Mary Margaret Yodzis 

Diversity, inclusion and equity are hot topics in the contemporary workplace. Many entities, including AGA, have recently issued diversity and inclusion (D&I) statements to encourage changes in attitudes and practices. AGA National President Wendy Morton-Huddleston explored the topic in a panel discussion at AGA’s Virtual PDT 2020 with the co-chair of AGA’s new Council for the Advancement of Women, Tracey Walker, senior director for government affairs at RSM, as well as Reed Waller, a financial system analyst at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, and Taka Ariga, chief data scientist for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and director of its newly established Innovation Lab. 

Walker began the discussion by calling diversity a new focus in today’s workplace. “One of the things I’ve been most encouraged by,” she noted, “…is that people seem very intentional about reaching outside their comfort zones to explore what it’s like to be the only person on a team, in a room, or in a leadership meeting, and asking how we can drive inclusion.”

D&I relates to perspective, Walker said. As an example, she shared a story about the Titanic. “The iceberg was viewed as a weapon of destruction. But if people had thought differently about it, lifeboats could have taken people to the iceberg, and thousands could have been saved. Instead, 2,400 or so people perished. Sometimes we also view diversity as something to stay away from. It’s only when we lean into D&I that we officially begin to achieve higher performance and efficient collaboration in new ways.”

Audience polling questions requested details from the panel on creating safe spaces in the workplace to talk about culture and D&I. Walker said the process must follow specific ground rules for conversation:  

  • Assume positive intent.
  • Consider your voice is important in educating others on the journey to inclusion.
  • Extend empathy and suspend reactions to the shared views and comments of others.
  • Be open to understanding.
  • If a perspective differs from yours, lean in, ask questions, and see common ground.
  • Give leaders feedback to help individuals, teams and the firm grow.

“Courageous conversations are about trust and positive intent,” Walker said. “They require leaders to get a little bit vulnerable. One-on-one, state your goals at the outset but also state your fears — ‘I may say something awkward; I may say something that’s misunderstood.’ But if people understand that your intent is positive and you are being vulnerable, then you start to establish a level of trust that allows you to deliver feedback.”

Follow-up questions to test for understanding are critical as well. “We all have things we prefer. If we get out of our comfort zones courageously — where the magic happens, extraordinary learning and growth can take place. But you have to be intentional,” Walker said.

Ariga stressed tone from the top. “There should be moments of vulnerability and moments of being empathetic to other people’s life stories. It is also super-important not to get too comfortable in day-to-day routines. Introduce an active rotation of different projects with different stakeholders” to avoid complacency, he said.

The panel agreed that becoming an inclusive leader demands a series of steps:

  • Move out of a comfort zone (through fear and anxiety) to new conversations.
  • Learn to apply new skills. 
  • Form new connections.
  • Utilize team skills and talents.
  • Grow. 

Leaders must also remain aware of barriers to D&I, particularly bias, the panel concurred. All people have bias, said Walker. “It keeps us safe. We have to be conscious of how the bias shows up. Only then can we move to conscious inclusion. As we practice inclusion, it can become unconscious, because behavior has changed.”

In response to an audience question about groupthink as a hindrance to D&I, the panel agreed that a better perspective derives from greater participation among personnel. The leader, however, must be able to gather feedback from everyone in an environment for honest commentary. “If everyone is comfortable speaking up,” Walker said, “people [can] consider alternatives and different answers. Retention comes directly from a sense of belonging and feeling valued.”

Walker noted statistics that show 42% of the sense of belonging at work comes from mentors and sponsors, while 35% comes from managerial involvement and 23% comes from workplace policy. 

“We need to do more than have happy hours and show movies,” Ariga added. “While these are important, people want to be seen and heard.”

Ariga recommended the GAO practice of measuring the socioeconomic statistics of the workforce and sharing them with employee resource groups to clearly demonstrate the current state of diversity. “We can start modeling a desired end state,” he said, “once we know from a data perspective, in terms of gender, ethnicity, social background, …where we are doing well and where we are not.” 

Ariga confirmed the value of D&I training but suggested the more critical component in transformation is emotional intelligence (EQ). “Sometimes the conversation about D&I gets lumped into different verticals, whether it’s gender, culture, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” he explained. “If we are conscious of our EQ and how we engage with different people, we don’t need to worry about specific groups, but rather act intelligently, be respectful, be engaging, treat others the way we would prefer to be treated.”

Walker added that part of EQ and self-awareness is acknowledging personal traits. She recommended a free EQ assessment from Harvard University, available online, to begin to understand strengths and weaknesses in the quest for authentic D&I. 

Most people today, according to Ariga, are in a “problem-admiration state. We all recognize some of the systemic issues. I am genuinely interested in individuals’ perspectives on how ‘right’ should look and how to incrementally work toward that ideal.” 

In his data science work, Ariga called D&I more than “a set of policies or a feel-good story. It is intrinsically important to how we do our work. Algorithms don’t sleep. They can process data 24/7, so biases and systemic discrimination are dramatically magnified. We’ve all heard about facial recognition models not detecting black or brown faces; we’ve seen examples of companies trying to implement recruiting models that exclude women. Having a diverse team does not necessarily guarantee optimal outcomes, but it mitigates risk. If diverse backgrounds are part of the team, it’s important to see whether underlying data properly represents the constituents you are trying to serve.”

Ariga gave the example of an algorithm developed in Florida, using that population data, that is implemented in Minnesota. “Is it going to properly represent the population in Minnesota? Here, conscious effort around diversity helps mitigate biases and makes sure inputs and outputs adequately represent the society we serve. It’s a very important topic with real impact.”