Company culture: Get comfortable being uncomfortable


In this article, co-authored by Gaia Caruso - Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Sparta Global – and Nicke Harrison - Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager, Cancer Research UK – we get talking about culture and its critical role in business. How can employers use company culture to promote inclusion and address the behaviours that impact a person’s sense of belonging?


Culture and business

Culture is an increasingly popular topic of discussion in business. Widely recognised as a defining aspect of business reputation and branding, culture is also one of the primary levers at the disposal of leaders to enhance organisational profitability and effectiveness.

Company culture is central to the “inclusion” part of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) because it influences how people feel about work. Culture informs individual and collective experiences in the workplace, it orients the actions employees take and the way people communicate with one another.

Perhaps more importantly, culture can mean the difference between whether people stay at your company and develop their careers or whether they leave and go somewhere else. Culture is also essential to turn the programmes and initiatives laid out in your D&I strategy into reality. You can have all the programmes you want – diverse shortlists, targeted progression programmes, sector-leading training – but if you have a company that doesn’t celebrate and maximise diversity, then you won't have happy, productive and engaged staff. Culture is the essential ingredient that grounds ideas into actions, turns beliefs into experiences and ultimately promotes a sense of purpose and identity among your employees.

A new approach

One of the most challenging aspects of re-thinking your company culture involves the ability to identify the less visible behaviours and hidden communication patterns that take place within your employee community. These include everyday verbal, behavioural or environmental messages that people use intentionally and unintentionally. On closer examination, these patterns often reveal the presence of micro-aggressions - sometimes involuntary - that perpetuate derogatory or prejudicial views towards certain groups or individuals. Micro-aggressions can be very damaging not only for people's wellbeing but also for company culture, especially because they are difficult to spot.

You cannot drag a company through cultural change, there are more subtle yet effective ways to do this. One of the ways Sparta Global and Cancer Research UK are addressing this phenomenon is by employing a combination of changes through education and mentoring.

Step by step

The first step is educating people, so that employees can learn to recognise micro aggressions and call them out as they are happening. The second step companies can take is encouraging and empowering people to challenge these behaviours in a non-confrontational way, starting direct conversations with colleagues to help them understand the organisational, cultural and reputational impact of language in the workplace. Leaders have a big part to play in role modelling inclusive behaviours and promoting positive cultural shifts, yet a well-rounded approach to challenging micro-aggressions requires participation at all levels. Both education and mentoring are key to understanding the experiences of minority groups at work, starting by actively reflecting on the everyday language we use with our colleagues. Yet, criticism of the 'political correctness' culture poses new challenges for businesses, as professionals have become so unsure of what they can and cannot say, that they would prefer to avoid difficult conversations altogether. This can cause people and organisations to shy away from talking about gender justice, gender identity, race, disability and other topics they may perceive as uncomfortable.

Active change

One way of addressing this problem is through running language workshops and educational programmes. Language workshops provide valuable guidelines on inclusive vocabularies and how to deploy them, whilst encouraging people to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”, fighting the natural inclination to avoid controversy and instead learning to discuss delicate D&I topics in a safe space. These exercises are beneficial for leaders, too. They encourage active listening and require leaders to be vulnerable, let go of the pressure of having to know everything and accept the responsibility of educating themselves as they strive to point their teams in the right direction.

Culture is perhaps the single most important investment a company can make. Businesses that invest in their people will see the benefits in their talent attraction strategy, human resource management, retention, branding, reputation and sales. When it comes to grounding inclusion into practice, start small. Look at micro-behaviours, everyday language, norms and ideas that exist within your community, be courageous, take a leap of innovation and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.