A Human-Centered Approach to Culture Change

by | Sep 7, 2022 | Hummingbird Blog

I’ve been drafting The Hummingbird Way, a manifesto of sorts which I hope will serve as a guide for our work at Hummingbird Humanity. This blog is the beginning of that manifesto – which is a work in progress – so it’s a bit longer than usual. 

While The Hummingbird Way is a work in progress, I still hope you find this blog insightful and, more importantly, I hope it sparks conversation and reflection.

As a cisgender white man who happens to be gay and a person with a disability (I have three invisible disabilities), I have experienced both the privilege that comes with my physical appearance (as a white, masculine, tall man – I’m 6’6”) as well as moments where I have felt marginalized in very real ways because I’m gay, disabled, or both. 

I try to use those experiences where I was ‘othered’ or felt like an ‘outsider’ to empathize with others who have been marginalized while using my privilege to ignite meaningful conversations that lead to change.

It might also be helpful to mention that my first career was in movie theatre operations and that I became an HR professional who started their ‘official’ DEI journey about 10 years ago. I’ve learned a lot since then – and I know there’s more for me to learn. 

My core areas of expertise – beyond the subject matter areas of HR and DEI – are organizational change, employee experience, company culture, and internal communications. I also very much identify with the experiences of the Queer community and also with others who battle mental illness.

I recognize that my perspectives are informed by my identity, my lived experiences, and my background. I’m grateful for the team of experts that I get to work with at Hummingbird who help me see other points of view and help me better understand the lived experiences of others as well.

With that background, here are a few of my thoughts on some of the challenges with DEI work:

    • DEI work is sometimes experienced as an attack, particularly by heterosexual, white, men, which either sparks a fight, flight, or freeze response or ignites shame, blame and guilt. Either way, when this happens, I believe we’ve lost the battle before it’s started. 
    • I also believe that it’s the responsibility of DEI professionals inside companies and organizations to develop an understanding of the experiences of marginalized communities, to incorporate those learnings into the initiatives they are driving, and to take the leaders, managers, and employees on a journey. This requires an understanding of change management and organizational systems – which aren’t often considered skills needed for DEI roles (or offered as learning experiences for DEI professionals).
    • For too many years, DEI work was only focused on the representation of employees who work at the company – typically with focus on women and people of color. These are absolutely important considerations. There is much more that should be considered as part of creating workplaces where everyone feels that they belong.
    • We put DEI in HR, because it’s about people, without recognizing that HR leaders typically don’t have the core KSAs (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities) for DEI work and that DEI professionals don’t often have the same knowledge as HR professionals. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but we need to support the learning of these professionals to deliver on the potential impact that meaningful DEI work can have on an organization. 
    • DEI efforts are often under-funded, under-resourced, and not given the time and attention needed to make a tangible impact.
    • While improving, DEI actions are still too often ‘check the box’ without a focus on long-term, sustained culture change. I believe this is largely due to a desire from senior leaders to see quick results. Culture change is a long-game. 
    • While our lived experiences often inform how we approach DEI work, it is important to note that not every marginalized person will be an expert in DEI or how to change the culture of a workplace – and not every person from an underrepresented group wants to be part of DEI work. 
    • This work needs all of us, especially those who have access to power, privilege, and resources, to tear down barriers and systems of oppression in the workplace for everyone to feel a sense of belonging – and we need to find new, better ways to get everyone involved in the change – moving beyond the polarization of our world today.
    • There is a difference between activism and culture change though too often they are confused. Internal DEI practitioners need activists to challenge and influence our internal work to ignite meaningful culture change. And activists need internal experts in organizational development to guide those efforts within companies.

With those perspectives in mind, these are some of the guiding principles for our approach at Hummingbird (in no particular order):

    • Foundational to our work is the belief that building bridges of trust, through a lens of shared humanity, between employees, managers, and leaders is the start of igniting meaningful change. 
    • We believe that those bridges of trust – paired with developing the necessary skills to engage in respectful conversations about sensitive topics – open the door to understanding how we are treated differently – often as a result of our identities and systemic oppression..
    • We incorporate change management principles in all aspects of our work recognizing that evolving a company’s culture is a marathon, not a sprint, and a journey, not a destination.
    • We bridge the gap between DEI, HR, social impact, communications, and wellbeing through our diverse areas of expertise and array of lived experiences – recognizing that these combined areas of expertise are necessary to ignite meaningful change to create truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.
    • We assess whether our clients are invested in doing work beyond ‘check the box’ and will have honest conversations about whether we can effectively make an impact. We have walked away when we aren’t the right partner or when we recognize that the work won’t receive the commitment required to make a real difference.
    • We meet our clients, and the humans that make up their teams, where they are – which sometimes means starting with foundational concepts and sometimes means diving into discussions around systemic oppression. We provide a custom approach and avoid plug-and-play tactics.
    • We believe DEI is one part of developing a human-centered workplace culture. Our approach also includes: social impact, holistic wellbeing, people-first leadership, transparency in communications, and requires a demonstrated commitment from senior leaders.
    • The work to create diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible workplaces must incorporate an understanding of the systemic oppression which has targeted Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled people, just to name a few. 
    • Our assessments, strategic roadmaps, programs, and services are informed by human-centered thinking, DEI methodologies, and framed through our four lenses of representation framework: People, Culture, Customers, & Community. 
    • We support ongoing, multi-directional learning – with our team and with our clients – recognizing we are all working towards a shared goal and, for truly inclusive workplaces to be realized, we must learn from each other.
    • We believe that humans, regardless of their lived experiences, have an innate desire to treat others with respect, dignity, and compassion, and also have the potential to change, grow, and learn, through a lens of shared humanity, to develop an understanding about others who may have different lived experiences. 
    • We don’t have to agree on everything to treat each other with dignity and respect. 
    • We work towards creating the type of company culture at Hummingbird that we hope our clients will embrace. Said differently, we practice what we preach.
    • We believe that human-centered workplaces must both embrace a commitment to building awareness and understanding as well as help their leaders, managers, and employees develop skills that support a human-centered culture. These skills include demonstrating empathy, the ability to have sensitive conversations respectfully, and engaging with emotional intelligence.
    • We listen to the voices of marginalized communities and encourage difficult, real, honest dialogue. The belief in the power of these conversations is thread throughout our work helping the humans in workplaces develop increased ability to hear each other – particularly those in privilege gaining the ability to honor those who have been marginalized.
    • We believe that change starts at the top – the Board of Directors, the CEO, and the Senior Leadership Team. These senior leaders must actively demonstrate their commitment to a human-centered workplace culture.
    • We believe that human-centered workplace cultures are an essential part of organizational success. Good for humanity. Good for business.

I’m confident that we don’t have all of the answers at Hummingbird – and believe my colleagues would say the same. I also respect that our approach to change won’t be fast enough for some – particularly for members of marginalized communities who have waited too long for change to happen. I also believe that our approach works – and have seen real change happen with our clients who have trusted us to partner with them and invited us into their workplaces. These moments of success make me grateful that we are part of the work to create workplace cultures that work for everyone. 

I hope our approach sparks helpful reflection as you work to ignite change and create workplaces where humans thrive. Whether you agree with what I’ve shared  – or disagree – or find yourself somewhere in between. Thank you for reading. 

The change in progress – to create workplaces where every human thrives and each person feels like they belong – will require each of us sharing and listening, reflecting and understanding, engaging and pausing, learning and showing up. 

We can get there, together.

Brian McComak

Brian McComak

CEO / Founder

he / him / LGBTQ+

Brian McComak is a consultant, speaker, author, and facilitator with over 25 years of experience in DEI, HR, culture, change management, internal communications, and employee experience. He is an openly gay man and a person with a disability who shares his lived experiences in service of fostering workplaces where humans thrive.

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