Building a Culture of Care is the Essential DEI Workplace Priority
Care is the Foundational and Often Ignored Essential Building Block
When I taught a global public health course, the first assignment was for students to analyze whether “in the context of global public health, do people care about each other?” The students chose a position, either yes or no, and justified their reasoning with academic literature research.
I am glad I do not have to navigate that minefield anymore. Whew!
There was a time that it was easier. It was easier to say that there could be either a “yes” or a “no.” It was easy enough to have the activity be focused on how the writer supported their selected binary position statement.
Likely, that could not be said for today.
Daily, the fundamental lack of care in nearly all aspects of life emerges and reemerges in engrossing and horrifying ways. Justifying a sense of care in many different contexts, and particularly in the context of global public health, expands into a greater challenge.
Why does care matter? In the context of an increasingly global society, connections matter. The care matters. Individual action cannot solve systemic problems.
A foundation of care is central to any organization. Without the foundation of basic care, nothing else will be effective. Trust, health, responsibility, DEI efforts, belonging… all undoubtedly will fail. Whether quickly or slowly, they will fail.
This screams “overly dramatic!” However, a culture of care sets the foundation for whether people at any level care about each other and the mission of the group. Do people care about their supervisors? Do the supervisors care about their reports? …in any way? Are they working together towards common goals?
The concept of care appears in several ways.
Care about lives
Sometimes the foundation of care is caring about actual lives. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a fundamental lack of care in an individualistic society. Some states, organizations, institutions, and businesses have become infamous - or deadly - in this basic aspect of care. Respecting people’s lives is the most basic way to demonstrate care.
This is simple - make sure people can stay alive. There are workplace rules like OSHA. My favorite example when talking about workplace safety and exposures is the 30 Rock Building. Many people are familiar with the tv show, 30 Rock, starring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. The show is named after one of the most well known addresses in New York. The iconic photographs of the construction of this New York landmark show part of the story of just how far workplace safety has come. Yet, there is still much to be done. Workplace safety across many sectors, including healthcare, education, office work, food service, and manufacturing, has degraded quickly in the last two years.
Care about the mission and vision
Sometimes the care is about the work - mission and vision centered. When people are moving in the same direction, at least metaphorically, there is a central idea of care. They care about the work and are contributing to a shared goal.
This care can be the motivating factor for actions. A central mission and vision at least attempt to have a goal that the group cares about. In contrast, a disorganized and independent or cliquish organization lacks a central motivating drive. It becomes harder for people to care about the goals or each other when working and moving in different directions.
Care about trust
Creating a culture of trust falls in at one of the most difficult activities of any group. Whether the group is a sports team, business, or classroom, different norms and practices influence the group. Unifying these is human interactions. Along with human interactions come personality differences and communication styles.
Creating a culture of trust starts at the top. Having leaders who trust their employees is essential, though all individuals throughout the organization contribute to the care about trust.
General trust is foundational. However, specific actions to build trust contribute to the overall culture. Activities like feedback platforms, communication channels, safe spaces and brave spaces, and similar contribute to developing a culture of psychological safety.
Care about Camaraderie
Teamwork makes or breaks the care about camaraderie. The leadership styles in these teams shape most of this potential care. Connecting closely to the care about mission and vision, teamwork and collaborative environments can create a sense of closeness. When the motivations are similar or the individuals rely on each other, the care about productivity or outcome can overlap with the care about other contributors.
Most organizations have forgotten about or willfully ignore Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The same general principles apply here when discussing DEI initiatives. Before we can climb up to the belonging part of the pyramid, and the rest of the DEI work, we need care to create a safe environment. Physical safety, belonging/inclusion, engagement, and growth need to appear in the DEI spaces as the pyramid narrows to the top.
Care appears in many ways throughout an organization. While often ignored, every initiative, activity, product, and outcome rely on some aspect of care.
I am wildly glad that I no longer have to assess supporting arguments for whether people care about each other. Sometimes it feels impossible to support the “yes, they do” side anymore. Yet, care is essential to engagement. If people do not care, now is the time to start.