Disrupting Patterns of Prejudice, Oppression, and Exclusion in the Workplace . . .

. . . Or what I learned about my role in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives from a baby

Have you ever noticed that babies are much more intent at knocking down the tower of blocks than building it up? Sometimes it is easier to break things down than it is to build something new. In this blog I explore how Human Systems Dynamics can help us find opportunities to break down patterns of prejudice, oppression, and exclusion in the workplace when we don’t have formal forms of power.

Say What?!?!

Think of a time you overheard a coworker say something so offensive that it made your jaw drop? Has there been a time when you wondered if you were the only one that noticed the manager’s great idea actually came from someone else who wasn’t given credit?

These events happen every day. They are byproducts of patterns of prejudice, oppression, and exclusion in the workplace. They have real consequences for organizational performance. Yet, they keep happening. What did you do the last time you noticed one of these things? Did you take action to correct your coworker’s statement? Did you call out the idea-appropriating manager and give credit where it was due?

Probably not—or at least not all of the time—because opposition can have its own unhelpful ripple effects. Your coworker may dig in their heels and say that you misunderstood or that you’re being too sensitive. The manager may claim that it wasn’t the appropriate place to give credit and what matters is that the idea was accepted by others.

There are many social justice warriors, fighting 24/7 to make our communities places where everyone has opportunity, where all people deserve our respect. We can support them and aspire to be like them, but if you are young, don’t have a fancy job title, or work in a very hierarchical or bureaucratic organization, it can be hard to act when you see injustice in your workplace. On the other hand, inaction makes you complicit in perpetuating patterns of prejudice, oppression, and exclusion.

Good news: Short of becoming a social justice warrior yourself, you do have options for wise action that minimize the risk for unconstructive ripple effects.

Building Up vs. Breaking Down

Across the field of Human Systems Dynamics, Associates often work on projects that envision a vibrant future and create new patterns that improve workplaces, industries, and society. The work is bold and beautiful. We want to create patterns of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. But how can we do that if we can only control our own actions? If we are early in our careers? Not a manager? In a highly structured environment?

The benefit of Human System Dynamics is that it can help us see the present clearly. So that when we don’t have the power to create patterns, we can define our role in disrupting harmful patterns. In other words, we can be strategic in how we knock down the tower of blocks.

By focusing on disrupting patterns, you create small holes. Something new will fill these holes. It may not be a perfect solution, but it will be different than before. Long-term, the holes can cause the patterns of prejudice, oppression, and exclusion to collapse more easily when there is will from the top of the organization to create new, inclusive patterns.

The truth is that alone, one person can never create patterns of diversity, equity, and inclusion because by definition these patterns require many people. However, it only takes one person to disrupt patterns of prejudice, oppression, and exclusion. There is no silver bullet for breaking these down in the workplace, but we don’t have to be bystanders.

Let’s Do It!

Finding strategies that are “fit for function” is a core tenant of Human Systems Dynamics. Determining what is fit for function in disrupting patterns of prejudice, oppression, and exclusion in the workplace require an awareness of scale and the component of the pattern you are trying to disrupt.

First, we need to understand the scales at which we have influence and power to act.

  • Individual: What is your privilege? What is your power? When do your biases come into play?
  • Workplace: Where do you have power and influence in your role? Do you have access to executives? Are you on an interdepartmental team? Do you represent your organization in the community? Do you keep things running by buying supplies and services?   
  • Broader Community: If you have a full-time job, you’ll probably spend about a third of your life at work. What you do at work matters to the rest of your life and how you spend your free time matters to your work. What are you doing outside of work that reinforces your role as a disrupter? How do your actions at work help you create patterns of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the rest of your life?

Next, it’s important to understand the component of the pattern you are trying to disrupt. Patterns have three components: containers, differences, and exchanges.They are the tower of blocks every baby is intent on knocking over. Examining each will help you chose the wisest action for disruption.

  • Containers are the boundaries of the pattern. Are you responding to the status quo? What underlying beliefs caused your coworker to say something offensive? What are the assumptions behind a particular process?
  • Differences between actors and agents both define the pattern and create tension for change. Is the workplace really as harmonious as recruiting materials make it out to be? Have differences among employees been acknowledged? What differences matter, and which don’t affect daily work?
  • Exchanges are connections between people and ideas, and they determine when and how quickly things can change. Are you responding to something someone just said? Or a repetitive behavior? Did their behavior affect one person or multiple people?

And now, a break in your regularly scheduled programming . . .

Being a disrupter requires you to engage in continuous and concurrent cycles of adaptive action.  Asking yourself: What is the situation I am in? So what are the patterns of prejudice, oppression, and exclusion at play? Now what can I do to disrupt them? Act, reassess, and act again.

If you want to disrupt the container, you can expand or constrain the boundaries. For example, when you are responsible for buying lunch, you can expand boundaries by catering from a minority-owned business, rather than going to the “usual” place. You can take steps to bring people with different lived experiences into your work.

If you want to disrupt the differences, you can amplify the differences or bring to light the unhelpful similarities. For example, you can explain how a product was made better after a review process that included diverse voices. You can ask why everyone around the decision-making table is white, able-bodied, college-educated, or over 50, etc.

If you want to disrupt the exchanges, you can broaden connections to speed change up or tighten connections to preserve useful parts of the current system. For example, you can actively seek out opportunities to learn and share with people from different backgrounds. You can set up standing check-in meetings that give under-represented perspectives an opportunity to be heard.  

Now, go ahead. Knock down the tower of blocks. Now, do it again. I’ll be happy to join you in squealing and clapping like a baby at the destruction.

Join a global network of learning about HSD!

As a member of the network, you will receive weekly notices of events, opportunities, and links to blogs and other learning opportunities. Additionally, you will have the option to unsubscribe at any point, should you decide to do so.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.