October 14, 2020

How Differences Make a Difference

Goodwin Partner Huiya Wu sat down with Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts to explore Seven Conversations (We Should Be Having) about Diversity, Inclusion and Positive Organizing 

In the latest installment of the firm’s "Unprecedented Conversations” series, Huiya Wu, Goodwin IP Litigation Partner and member of the Women@Goodwin leadership team, sat down for a virtual fireside chat with Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, who is a Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, as well as an author, researcher and organizational consultant. Dr. Roberts led audience members through a discussion on Seven Conversations (We Should Be Having) about Diversity, Inclusion and Positive Organizing, a model highlighting best practices and pitfalls of leading inclusive organizations using an “identity-based resourcing” perspective on strategically engaging best selves among workers in diverse organizational settings.

According to Dr. Roberts, too often, conversations about diversity and inclusion remain just that – fraught discussions of history, stereotypes, and longstanding frustration and confusion, leading to a central question: How can leaders facilitate generative dialogue that harnesses the power of inquiry, encourages learning from diverse experiences and fuels positive organizing? 

After introductions by Deborah Birnbach, co-chair of Goodwin’s Public M&A Corporate Governance Practice in Boston and co-chair of Women@Goodwin, Dr. Roberts began the event by framing the discussion of her research in the immediate circumstance, a global pandemic disproportionately impacting minorities:

There is no doubt that 2020 has been a wake-up call in many respects. We have in spite of our past spending of over $8 billion dollars in Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives found ourselves in a position where the work that we have been doing has not met the crisis of the moment and business leaders are being called upon to re-engage and re-envision and in many respects re-commit to work around diversity and inclusion.

What could this recommitment entail? Dr. Roberts urged attendees to resist the temptation to find and focus on our commonalities, because while that can be valuable, it hinders us from truly affirming and leveraging the power of our differences. “So, in our conversation today we want to take up the question of what it means to be intentionally inclusive,” said Dr. Roberts, “And what happens as we move even beyond intentional inclusion. We know that research shows that 40% of people say that they feel isolated at work and that the causes of exclusion are substantial across the board. So, what can we do in this respect?”  

Dr. Roberts outlined three vital steps to achieving the extraordinary outcomes we seek around Diversity and Inclusion: (1) Acknowledging our differences, (2) Affirming those differences, and (3) Engaging in action to co-create environments where all are welcome to thrive as their best selves. She then introduced the Seven Conversations model. These conversations, the result of decades of research on leveraging strengths and identity-based resources in diverse workplaces, are grounded in appreciative frameworks: 

Dr. Roberts proceeded to unpack each phrase or conversation of the AFFIRM acronym, and the conversation inspired by each phrase.

In introducing conversation #3, Dr. Roberts encouraged focusing on individual strengths, and used the metaphor of a potluck:

Imagine that you are at a potluck for an important holiday or celebration that may be upcoming and at that potluck you are assigned to bring the macaroni and cheese, and the problem is you don’t know how to cook macaroni and cheese. Now who wants to spoil a family potluck by bringing a dish that you don’t know how to cook but everybody else is craving? Nobody wants to be in that position, and likewise no one wants to be at a potluck where six people bring macaroni and cheese. How do we understand what we can each bring in a unique and distinctive way that helps us to add value? In other words, how do our differences make a difference? 

Another step to fostering conditions for best selves to flourish is creating a context that is welcoming of what colleagues have to offer. Dr. Roberts asked the audience to remember our own experiences of inclusion and consider when and where we felt fully included at school or work or in our communities. Not only must differences and differences of opinion be welcomed as strengths, she emphasized, but a welcoming spirit and attitude needs to be extended to people as they bring their distinctiveness into organizations:

Dr. Roberts took several questions after her presentation that were focused on practical steps that can be taken in the workplace to foster authenticity, allyship and combat microaggressions: 

Dr. Roberts concluded the discussion with a number of suggestions for approaching authentic conversations about race in the workplace – an element of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion that often makes people uncomfortable – by first inviting leaders to set the tone, even if it’s to admit they never really thought about it:

Share your stories with another if you are in the leader or the management position -- share your story first. If there are a lot of things that you did not know or you did not realize before summer 2020, because you just were not tuned in, that is your story, share that story, talk about how you were not tuned into it and why, and how that might have played out for you, and what kind of jarring experience you may have had this summer.

Goodwin extends its thanks to Dr. Roberts for her valuable insights into the ways we can support one another in embracing our differences, welcome diversity of opinion, and approach the sometimes-difficult conversations that arise in the workplace.