Weatherhead Q and A with Diana Bilimoria | Weatherhead

Weatherhead Q and A with Diana Bilimoria

Posted 7.23.2012

Weatherhead Q and A with Diana Bilimoria

Weatherhead catches up with Diana Bilimoria, PhD, KeyBank Professor, Professor of Organizational Behavior. Read through the conversation with Bilimoria regarding diversity in organizations, work-life balance, and The Hunger Games.

W: What current trends have you observed around women and minorities in organizations?

In light of recent dramatic changes in technology, demographics, and globalization that are impacting literally every dimension of work and organizing today, many organizations and leaders recognize that there is a business imperative to become more inclusive. This is not just with regard to customers and employees, but also how their companies interact with the community, media, and other institutions. A trend we are seeing is growing awareness of a need to become more open to and engaging of diverse others, whether that means being more global or more demographically diverse, or even just thinking in different ways. All of these are various facets of the phenomenon of inclusiveness that is becoming increasingly important for our organizations.

W: What is driving this change? Is it that clients or customers want to see their own diversity represented in the organizations they work with?

That is one of many issues. More often, I see senior executive teams recognize that they themselves need to be thinking in different ways and become better informed about newer phenomena and different perspectives. So the driver of inclusion in many cases is the need to bring diverse people together to innovate and perform effectively across boundaries—and for this, organizations need leaders at all levels to become more savvy in engaging, including, and developing diverse talent. That’s why companies come to us—to find solutions to develop leadership at all levels to become more open, inclusive, engaging and participative.

W: That sounds like a tall order. What advice do you give companies?

There are steps that can be taken at the individual level, the group level, and the organizational level.

At the individual level, leaders at all levels have to strive to acquire skills and gain perspectives that will enable them to become more personally open. More inclusive leaders seek input and ideas from everyone, foster not just the participation but the initiative of others, value each individual for her or his background and talents, treat employees more as owners than workers, welcome questions and challenges, and support the development of others. And each leader must recognize what’s holding him or her back from engaging in such behaviors. What are the challenges to him or her individually? How can he or she overcome those internal challenges?

At the group level, what needs to happen is the development of team norms and behaviors that foster inclusion. In other words, teams need to build an internal culture of engagement. Teams that are more inclusive create norms of treating diverse people fairly, engage in constructive interactions among team members, develop trust among team members, and encourage productive debate. That’s a group-level, department-level, or unit-level function.

At the organizational level, it's important to create systems and mechanisms that allow more participation and engagement, such as by creating an equitable workplace where everyone can compete equally. An organization needs to create a culture where people feel they are encouraged to provide ideas, take initiative, and even take risks in the service of accomplishing the organization’s mission—and in which they are not going to be punished for failure or because they did something that is not the norm. The culture is at the level of the organization as a whole. It has to do with how rewards are allocated, how people get promoted, who gets advanced. To be energizing for everyone, the systems that are in place to do these things have to be mission-driven, bias-free, and transparent.

W: Which organizations are taking these steps?

DB: Well, there are many organizations doing different aspects. Some are trying to change their workplace culture, focusing on behaviors and leadership development. Others are hiring diverse people, bringing them together, and diversifying leadership. There are pockets of these activities happening...but few companies have a more systemic view and are more successful, not just at leveling the playing field, but also at improving their culture and climate.

In our latest book, Gender Equity in Science and Engineering: Advancing Change in Higher Education, my coauthor Xiangfen Liang and I focused on higher education institutions that are part of the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program. We described all kinds of different initiatives going on to create universities that are transforming their science and engineering cultures to become more diverse and inclusive. What specifically has been happening at these universities? Initiatives to enhance individual inclusive behaviors, group decision making, and organizational culture have been put into place and are being monitored to ensure that changes are effective and sustainable.

We’ve seen similar corporate change efforts of this scale occur in companies that have transformed into more lean manufacturing companies, for example, or that have become more adept at a certain technology, or that have immersed themselves in the Six Sigma process of quality control. We know that organizations are capable of transformative change. The business imperative now is that our organizations transform to becoming much more inclusive.

W: A recent article in the Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can't Have It All” dealt with the issue of work-life balance, specifically, the difficulty of having a family and having a career, particularly for women. Women have been in the workforce for decades now. Why aren't organizations moving faster to accommodate the work-life realities of many women?

DB: I think a lot of people are wondering: Why are we still dealing with this? Of course, work-life concerns are another facet of inclusiveness—how can our organizations become more fully inclusive of the needs of diverse employees (in this case, women and men who have family responsibilities)? To a large extent, we have left the solutions to be addressed at an individual level, e.g., by individual choices made by a woman employee or the support, for example flex time, offered by her boss. A lot of times the family care choices made by women employees disadvantage them for advancement in the future, particularly if they are managing and leading others, which cumulatively results in fewer women at senior organizational positions.

What is needed now is a move towards addressing work-life integration issues at the organizational level. We can no longer afford individual and ad hoc ways to address the work-life concerns of our employees—as we have seen, this ultimately leads to a talent drain from our companies. This awareness and understanding of inclusiveness in the broader sense needs to start at the top of organizations.

W: Tell us about the books you are currently reading.

DB: I just finished The Hunger Games. It was an amazing story. Obviously, it was empowering for women, but also a statement of how sometimes control systems can become soul-less. A book I just started reading is Thrity Umrigar’s The World We Found.

W: We've heard you are a keen cook. What's your favorite summer dish?

DB: We grill a fair amount in summer. And I always love cooking Indian food. I am originally from Mumbai, a city that is very eclectic in its cuisine.
W: Which Cleveland restaurants are your favorites?

DB: I’d have to ask: in which category? Cleveland has such a great variety! For a town our size, we have a disproportionate number of truly great restaurants.

W: And finally, what would you do if you had an hour of completely free time?

DB: I’d visit with friends. Or I might play Scrabble on the net.

You have just read the first installment of Weatherhead Q & A with faculty. Check back for our next conversation!

Interested in learning more about Weatherhead programs? Request more information or apply now, or register for one of over 70 open enrollment courses through Executive Education.

Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University cultivates creativity, innovation, and purpose-driven leadership to design a better world.