“Culture Fit” is Hiding Bias. “Toxic Positivity” is Actually Bad for You. “Diversity and Inclusion” Initiatives are Failing to Improve Either Diversity or Inclusion.

In the last couple of weeks (… and I blame the decrease of sunlight hours for an uptick in crankiness!), I’ve received numerous messages about how toxic positivity is a terrible thing and “culture” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and oh my gosh did I see that article on how D&I efforts are actually creating more racism? Maybe it’s time to reconsider championing these “pop psych trend bubbles”… but I don’t think so.

I 100% agree that people acting in the name of “Culture” or “Positivity” or “Diversity” or “Equality” have failed to cure all the world’s ills. I also 100% know that we need to keep working on these kinds of issues if we’re actually interested in creating great, healthy, innovative and sustainable work spaces (or communities, social organizations, families…).

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that companies of all sizes are (willingly or otherwise) trying to address bias in their hiring and other organizational practices. I probably read a dozen articles a week about culture, and the intersection of culture and workplace diversity, hiring practices, engagement, and so on is pretty compelling. I’m not the first person to notice that “culture fit” can be a loophole for either conscious or unconscious bias in hiring practices, and I’m glad people are looking at that and considering the impact. Same for ineffectual attempts at increasing happiness or D&I.

And, as somebody who spends a lot of time in these spaces, I am deeply concerned about the misapplication. whether it’s intentional or accidental, of concepts like culture and positivity, but I’m even more worried about the tendency of companies (and my fellow citizens) to see this and react by rebounding in weird and spectacularly damaging ways. I see this a lot in my work on happiness in the workplace. People get some serious, and frequently perverse, pleasure from arguing that “toxic positivity” is as bad or worse than no positivity at all, and they gleefully send me articles to prove their point. (Spoiler alert: there’s a huge difference between toxic and genuine positivity, and I coach people all the time on ways to figure out the difference!) Similarly, people will point out that hiding bias under a new buzzword or trendy phrase can be just as bad or worse than not addressing bias at all.

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Especially when we’re asking people to move out of their comfort zones, and for certain D&I efforts push a LOT of people out of some firmly entrenched comfort zones, any scrap of evidence that something isn’t 100% effective is often seized as proof that the whole thing is garbage and should be immediately dropped so we can just go back to Business As Usual, and when I hear people start down that path, I get that “Danger!” feeling tingling in the back of my brain. Acknowledging that a current attempt to fix a bad situation isn’t working does not magically mean that the original situation is somehow OK now.

We need to be careful not to throw the sick baby out with the muddy bathwater.

Hiring for “fit” is often translated as, “This square peg will fit perfectly into our square hole! Success!” That’s not really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about crafting and nurturing healthy corporate culture. Culture is fluid by nature, so avoid bring in people who, like a rotten apple in the fruit salad, spoil everything around them. Consider either what’s missing OR what could take you to the next level altogether or in whatever new direction you want to take things, and add THAT amazing energy and skill set to your team and watch the exponential growth happen!

Happiness in the workplace has a mountain of data behind the positive impact, but as I mentioned before, you can’t just throw perks at people and expect that to make them magically happy. If we want happier workplaces, we need to look at both the rational needs (can I pay my bills? Do I get health care benefits? How is parking?) and experiential needs (Do I like the people I work with? Am I accomplishing something with my time?) people have, and address both.

And if your D&I efforts aren’t showing the results you expected? Maybe you’re not getting enough buy-in from your decision makers, maybe your attempts are actually alienating people, maybe you have more “hope” than “strategy” – there could be any number of reasons why things aren’t going the way you want (and need) them to.

And… when we try something that doesn’t work, we need to admit that, and stop doing that thing… but not stop working towards our goals. And boy, I get it. it’s hard to admit that something isn’t working, especially when so much is riding on a program working. Throwing good money after bad won’t fix the problem, though, and it can damage the credibility of your leadership team or your own personal brand as a manager if you refuse to admit that something just isn’t working.

Instead, regroup and revisit why you’re doing this work in the first place. Dig a little deeper and figure out what exactly you’re trying to accomplish and why it matters, create realistic strategies for achieving those goals, and resource those strategies appropriately. If we want to have more engaged people, we need to do more than just provide them a gym, we have to make sure they have the time and energy to USE that gym. If we want more diverse and inclusive spaces, we have to think about diversity and inclusion in more than one dimension, and intentionally guide the process, not hope that “if we build it, they will diversify and include”.

We have to actually do the work, not check the boxes and cross our fingers. I don’t think most leaders are actually acting maliciously. These are just way more complex challenges than people often realize, and require a lot more dedicated attention to make viable progress. That’s why having a Vice President of D&I or Engagement (or Chief Happiness Officer!) or dedicated Culture Director/Manager/Guru/Champion can be so important. Asking your managers to add yet another initiative to their plate is probably not going to get you the results you need. If it’s worth doing, isn’t it worth doing it right?

(And if your management is truly just going through the motions? Might be time to consider a career change!)