Closed Circuit

By Eric Barendsen

In early March, WAPA’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee held its Going All-In on Inclusion and Diversity training and its biannual face-to-face meeting.

Spanning two and half days, the IDC’s activities included training new committee members on the overall purpose behind inclusion and diversity, or I&D, efforts, discussing the current state of I&D across the organization and mapping out the next six months of work.

Hosted by consultant Kathleen Nalty, the training provided a crash course in how WAPA approaches I&D.

Most importantly, the training gave staff concrete examples of ways in which organizations with strong I&D practices perform more effectively. One Deloitte study of hundreds of companies found that organizations with advanced I&D had on average 2.3 times more cash flow per employee, 1.4 times more revenue and are 120% better at meeting financial targets.

“Inclusiveness is a skill,” said Nalty. “It’s a critical 21st century workplace skill that you need to practice so much it becomes second nature.”

Science-based success
Drawing from numerous scientific studies on organizational behavior, attendees learned the business reasons for fostering work environments that value inclusion and how to make the case for stronger inclusion efforts to their managers and senior leaders.

“If organizations do not make the effort to educate themselves on the business benefits of inclusion and diversity, or support those trying to implement a diverse and inclusive work environment, they are setting themselves up for mediocrity or, worse yet, failure,” said Public Utilities Specialist Tamala Gheller.

According to Nalty, research has shown that inclusive and diverse teams that leverage their individual strengths offer more new ideas and work harder—each person contributes more, listens better and makes fewer mistakes. The reason for this is likely due to cognitive friction: being challenged to think in new ways when cues don’t match expectations. Groups that are more heterogeneous working through their cognitive friction have 58% more accurate information exchange and make better business decisions 87% of the time.

The training also underscored inclusion as the “game changer” in its ability to attract and, more importantly, retain top talent from many different groups of society. By embedding inclusion in the way the organization does business, WAPA fosters an environment that maximizes the contributions of all employees.

The heart of I&D
Core concepts of Nalty’s I&D training include:

  • Implicit bias. We often display a variety of biases when the unconscious mind is not overridden by intentional, reasoned thought. Implicit bias that harms underrepresented groups is often expressed by people or organizations if left unexamined.
  • Blind spots and hidden barriers. A common blind spot is unconsciously assigning menial activities disproportionately to women, such as notetaking, while an example of a hidden barrier is losing out on a promotion to a colleague who socializes more with the boss.
  • Inclusive intelligence. Seeing through the lenses of another’s race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status and so on allows one to develop empathy, illuminate blind spots and override implicit biases.
  • Inclusive leaders. These are managers who regularly check their blind spots by deliberately creating diverse teams and psychologically safe spaces where all can speak up and give actionable feedback without fear of personal or professional harm or ridicule.

Attendees learned a wide range of ways to address their own implicit biases through behavior changes, such as actively seeking out people from different backgrounds and experiences. Find commonalities by looking for at least one trait you admire in each colleague, and when you notice yourself judging someone based on a stereotype, interrupt it!

Another way to battle bias is to audit yourself regularly. Affinity bias, one of the most common and harmful unconscious biases, occurs when one prefers to socialize with people of similar backgrounds to the exclusion of others. As a supervisor, make sure affinity bias isn’t swaying which employees you are investing in or giving second chances to.

“A realization I had coming out of the training was that someone who supports an inclusive and diverse workforce can be very lonely,” explained Gheller. “Without support, it takes even more confidence to break away from a conscious or unconscious groupthink mentality.”

Inclusion first
The IDC originated in response to a 2011 executive order that required federal agencies to promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce. WAPA’s Equal Employment Opportunity office realized that a grassroots approach, if fully supported by leadership, would lead to success. Senior leadership soon recognized the strategic advantage of an inclusive workforce, and the IDC was launched.

Most organizations call these types of programs “diversity and inclusion,” but WAPA’s IDC founders decided to flip it to put the emphasis on inclusion first.

“After much discussion, the IDC determined that inclusion was something employees could immediately recognize and support,” explained Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist Julia Duffy. “It was the ‘secret sauce’ that would bring diverse perspectives together.”

The goals of inclusion are ultimately to empower everyone in the organization to feel equally advantaged, appreciated and engaged. Reaching these goals requires leaders to commit to fairness, exhibit humility, become cognizant of biases and have the courage to challenge them, maintain a growth mindset, address blind spots and value psychologically safe work environments.

“I&D is really the cornerstone of what I think has been one of the keys to our success over the last several years,” said Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel. “We make better decisions, we are more productive, have better employee engagement, higher employee satisfaction, and overall, it has helped build our culture to where we are today.”

Facing the future
The IDC’s face-to-face meeting in March showed participants how WAPA’s deliberate focus on I&D has paid dividends.

During her in-depth discussion about the 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores, Management and Program Analyst and Director of WAPA’s Change Management Program Stacey Decker pointed out the remarkable improvements in WAPA’s FEVS scores related to inclusion—particularly the 12.8 percentage point growth over five years in the “cooperative” category.

There is, however, still work to do.

“While it is on an upward trend, our greatest opportunity for growth continues to be in the ‘fairness’ category,” said Decker. More transparent advertising of promotion and detail opportunities and exposing staff to different areas of the organization through cross-functional teams could help, she explained.

The IDC participants pledged to look for more ways to target the fairness score for further improvement and to encourage their colleagues to stay engaged by participating in the FEVS and taking actions based on its results.

The meeting also helped set the stage for the next six months of work. Acting Chief Strategy Officer Laura Dawson presented a new timeline that plots major milestones of WAPA’s I&D efforts since the IDC’s inception. The timeline will be a useful tool to help the committee and management understand the cadence of I&D activities and identify gaps and opportunities.

The committee also discussed how to improve training for WAPA employees. The committee plans to tailor training formats to better reach craft employees in the field, explore expanded use of Learning Nucleus and find ways to enforce the three-hour-per-year I&D training requirement.

“One of the areas that we need increased management support is our training attendance,” said Desert Southwest Public Utilities Specialist and former committee chair Ebony Dennis. “We need to identify ways to get support at the middle management level.”

The IDC welcomed Safety and Occupational Health Managers Krystall Valencia and Matt Monroe as the new co-chairs of the committee. “I am honored to serve as one of the IDC co-chairs as we continue to focus on increasing inclusion throughout WAPA,” Valencia said.

Additional plans for 2020 include spotlighting inclusion at work in both WAPA’s offices and substations, developing new communications materials and including I&D requirements in all supervisors’ performance plans.

In fiscal year 2019, senior leaders and extended leadership team members built standard I&D requirements into their supervisory performance standards. That same language is now being cascaded to all supervising managers.

The IDC believes that communicating more broadly about this change will show employees across the organization how seriously management takes this structural approach to improving the culture, with a bias toward inclusion.

Note: Barendsen is a public affairs specialist.​

IDC attendees focused on the meeting

Attendees learned a wide range of ways to address their own implicit biases through behavior changes, such as actively seeking out people from different backgrounds and experiences.

WAPA Attorney-Adviser and IDC member Julia Duffy mid discussion
WAPA's Inclusion and Diversity Committee group photo

WAPA’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee held its Going All-In on Inclusion and Diversity training and its biannual face-to-face meeting in early March, hosted by training consultant Kathleen Nalty.

Last modified on March 6th, 2024