Move Your Utility Beyond Mindless Meetings

Diversity of thought can challenge assumptions, spark new ideas and make your utility more efficient.

For too many organizations, workplace diversity is a numbers game where the winner is determined by a formula that might look something like this: Hire X number of minorities; achieve a specific percentage of genders and sexual orientations; attain a certain mix of ages, ethnicities and backgrounds; and congratulate everyone involved for a job well done.
But in reality, achieving diversity is a lot more complex than that. In short, it’s not only the numbers that count — it’s all about creating a culture that welcomes and invites the ideas and perspectives that these employees bring to the table. And too often, they’re sitting at that proverbial table, but like children at a nice dinner party, they’re only present to be seen, not heard.

“It’s no longer enough for organizations to look around (at the numbers) and say, ‘Good. we have diversity here,’” says Beth Wagner, a master facilitator at Fierce Inc., a leadership-development consulting firm ( “It has to go much deeper than that — include all voices and encompass all diversity of thought and multiple perspectives, so that organizations can make the best possible decisions as well as truly engage their workforces.”

The benefits of diverse thought within utilities include more engaged employees, lower turnover, increased collaboration and better decision-making. Moreover, the workforce at large increasingly is demanding it. In fact, in a recent Fierce survey of millennials — the largest generational cohort in today’s workforce — half said that the companies they work for would benefit from greater thought diversity. They also believe that divergent perspectives result in greater innovation, Wagner points out.

In addition, Fierce facilitators have noticed a trend in client surveys in which affiliation groups within companies — whether they’re women or African-Americans, for example — want to engage in more dialogue with other internal groups. “Even those groups inside organizations want to talk more with each other — encourage diversity of thought,” says Stacey Engle, executive vice president of marketing for Fierce.

Another factor to consider: Organizations that aren’t as diverse as their clients will find it more difficult to understand those customers’ needs.

This type of interaction and relationship-building is difficult to achieve without mutual trust. To succeed, utilities must build what Wagner calls a culture of curiosity, in which employees are invited to share their opinions. And just as importantly, managers and supervisors must authentically listen to and value those perspectives. The value of this approach has been documented by a notable corporate-research firm, which found that organizations with employees who feel they’re trusted outperform organizations with employees who don’t feel that way, Wagner says.

“You can’t build a culture of curiosity and encourage diversity of thought without trust,” she emphasizes. “Trust is a byproduct of doing those things well.”

Few things can ruin trust-building attempts more than ignoring those who could bring thought-diversity to the forefront. Something as simple as a weekly meeting could bear significant benefits if managers break the habit of always inviting the same people to attend — their “go-to” employees. Often this isn’t done intentionally, Wagner notes; it’s more a factor of how people are naturally hardwired to seek out things that are familiar to them.

“If you look at what will result in the best possible decisions, one perspective does not create the reality of an organization,” she points out. “So while we may be wired to orient ourselves with people who think like us, it’s not the best way to generate creativity or innovation. You have to try to shift behaviors.”

To do that, Wagner recommends using a team model based on a beach ball. The idea is that every employee from a different level in a company has their own colored section of the beach ball. Symbolically, no single person holds the whole truth. Instead, they hold just a single sliver — or colored section — of the beach ball. And the only way to form a complete beach ball is to consider everyone’s ideas and perspectives, she says.

This model provides a more inclusive approach to planning as well as conducting meetings. And it can yield tangible results, Engle notes, pointing to a large not-for-profit charitable organization that parlayed a beach-ball conversation into more than $321,000 in savings. The organization now uses beach-ball conversations to dig into other problems and gather more innovative ideas and solutions.

What can utility leaders do to encourage more thought diversity? You can start by interrogating your own realities and questioning your assumptions. In other words, don’t use meetings as a mindless herd-think forum to reach a conclusion already determined ahead of time. Invite other perspectives and truly listen to new ideas.

Part and parcel to that is using the beach-ball model to invite the right people to meetings. That doesn’t mean inviting every possible employee — this invites “collaboration constipation,” in which so many voices chime in that nothing good gets accomplished. Instead, be conscious about inviting people from pertinent areas of the organization, as well as those who will challenge conventional assumptions and perspectives, Wagner suggests.

Just as importantly, truly listen to opposing perspectives. That includes being aware of how body language — checking a cellphone text message while someone is talking or not making eye contact, for example — can easily undermine good intentions at listening. In addition, the dreaded, “Yes, but…” response to someone’s opinion or idea is also a trust killer. “When you say something like that, what is the likelihood of that person ever sharing another perspective?” Wagner asks. “You’ve effectively closed down any chance of that happening again.

“Listening is the precursor to curiosity,” she adds. “Asking questions (after someone speaks) also is a powerful tool.”

In the end, the goal is to eliminate group-think and encourage creativity and innovation along with fresh insights and perspectives. To do otherwise and make diversity just a numbers game is a losing proposition.


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