281: Exploring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace, with Maria Morukian

October 3, 2023

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Dr. Pelè: 

Hello happy people, welcome to the Profitable Happiness Podcast. Hello everyone, this is Dr. Pelè with the Profitable Happiness Podcast, and today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Maria Morukian, who is the author of the book Diversity, equity and Inclusion for Trainers. I am so pleased to learn from you, to hear about your topic, your background, maria. How are you doing today?

Maria Morukian: 

I'm doing fantastic. Thank you so much for having me on Dr. Pelè.

Dr. Pelè: 

Oh, absolutely Absolutely. You know we were talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, and you said something that almost broke my heart and I'm just going to repeat it right now. You said inclusion is not enough. Oh, my goodness, where do we start with that topic? Tell us exactly what you mean by that and then give us a sense of the challenge, the problem that organizations are facing, where you have to say something like that, where it's so deep that they've got to dig themselves out. And inclusion, just inclusion, is not even enough.

Maria Morukian: 

Tell, us about the problem? Absolutely yes. So if you had asked me 20 years ago when I first started doing this work, I probably would have said inclusion is what we need to be focusing on, because at that point in time, much more of the focus was on this notion of managing diversity and it really was much more focused on compliance with, you know, equal employment, opportunity laws and maybe just a little bit of. We should probably start to look at our workforce and to make sure that it's a little bit more representative of the demographics in our nation and in our overall society. But there was not very much discussion about this notion of inclusion, which really is about creating an organizational environment and culture where people feel that sense of belonging. The reason that I now say inclusion is not enough is because often what I and a number of other diversity, equity and inclusion practitioners see is that leaders tend to have a somewhat superficial idea and perception about what inclusion, diversity, equity really look like in action, and what I mean by that is that inevitably, this notion of inclusion turns into well, we've created this organizational structure that fits our needs the needs of the people who are part of the dominant group, the needs of the people who are in positions of authority and power and status. And so this notion of saying we want to invite you to come to the table and we welcome you is good intentions but it is not enough. And the reason it's not enough is because there still is that power differential, there still is an expectation for people who have not had the same access to assimilate, to leave aside their own identities, their own unique talents and characteristics, and to try to fit themselves into this proverbial mold. So when I say inclusion is not enough, what I mean is we need to challenge and then dismantle that table and those chairs and say we got to rebuild this whole space together so that truly is something that we are co-creating and ensuring that everybody who enters into this organization, into this community, into this society feels that deep sense of belonging Breach.

Dr. Pelè: 

Let me just tell you that this topic is so dear to my heart. In fact, a lot of people talk about this thing called employee experience and they make a big deal about employee experience, but wait a second, whose experience is it really? Who created the table, as you say? Who created all this stuff? If we, as employees, don't get to participate in the creation of that experience, how is it truly our experience and how can we really enjoy it and appreciate it? I can't wait. Okay, so thank you for that. So we've identified as a set of challenges. You're going deeper than most of the DEI conversations that I've seen or heard. I really appreciate that, and I'm wondering what exactly brought you to this table. What's your history or your story? What is it that made you the person who wrote this book and the person who is helping to solve this problem in the world?

Maria Morukian: 

So I was sharing with you, before we started the recording that, my family background. My family name, marukyan, is Armenian by ethnicity and although I grew up in a very sort of prototypical Midwestern American, white, middle-class house and family, there was always a significant undercurrent of difference and a connection to being other and my father's side of the family. They were refugees twice over. So they had to flee Turkey during the Armenian genocide and at the time the US had actually closed its borders to any really non-Western European immigrants, and so my family were not able to come into the United States where many of their other family members and friends had settled, and so they went to Cuba and there was actually a significant Armenian population in Cuba at the time and so my dad was born in Havana and had this very interesting sort of cultural identity of being Armenian in his home with his family and Cuban on the streets, and then, as a young man, coming with his family to the United States and settling in Detroit, michigan, and sort of starting all over again, new language, new culture and trying to make a life for themselves. And he was fortunate enough and tenacious enough to create that life, not only for himself and for my mother, but also for my sister and me, and so we were surrounded from a very young age with people who came from such a wide variety of backgrounds, languages, cultures, reflected and represented in our household, and so I think that presence of different stories and walks of life was something that was core to who I was from a very young stage, and also something I often reflect on is the value that was implicitly and explicitly reinforced in my family around being a voice and using our power wherever we have it to speak for those who are voiceless, in whatever capacity that is, and that has followed me throughout my life. So my academic pursuits, my professional experiences, I think, have always been driven by that sense of moral responsibility, but also a deep desire to be that voice and also to create space for stories that often don't get told to be shared more broadly.

Dr. Pelè: 

Wow. So it's one of those. Like you know, I have a saying on my wall. It goes a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way. Oh, I love that. Yeah, this is. This is. This is personal for you, this is real, you've been there. This is not just academic for you and that's that's really awesome, you know. I would love to know sort of the details of how you solve some of the challenges related to DDI. How specifically does your book and its body of knowledge, you know, paint the solution for, for, for this, for organizations? You know you might have a five step model, a 10 step, maybe a 12 step program. Who knows that that that you bring to the table? Tell us a little bit about how you can solve the challenges of DDI in an organization.

Maria Morukian: 

Absolutely so I think going back revisiting that challenge of inclusion is not enough. And and really parsing that out in terms of some of the major challenges that we are often working with our clients and our partners around is what does it really look like for us to co create a culture at the institutional level that does work for everyone? And also I think sort of tangentially to that is, how do we ensure that everybody who is a part of this organization feels that sense of commitment and common purpose toward diversity, equity and inclusion in that meaningful way? And so those are, I think, are two of the challenges that we often really focus our our, our work on with our clients, and we will often start with just, first and foremost, trying to assess what is the organizational culture, and you mentioned earlier who's having what experience? Because so often what I see when I have conversations with senior leaders, I ask them tell me a little bit about your organizational culture and they will describe it, and sometimes they'll describe some of the challenges that they see. But more often than not they have a rosier picture about the organizational environment and, in particular, often see themselves because we all do, as the heroes of their own story. Right, and so they will express their openness to creating safe and, you know, open spaces for people to provide feedback and that their psychological safety. but then when I talk to folks on the ground level, their experiences are often very different and not quite so rosy, and so that can be really challenging sometimes for leaders to hear right, but I'm a good person and I've created this organization and I know all of the work that I've put in to make this place better. But my employees are now telling me that either it's not enough or I'm missing the mark, or they are, they are feeling harmed in some way. I think that cognitive dissonance is something that we really need to focus on when we're doing this work. So I would say, first and foremost, it's not just doing the data collection, but it's having meaningful, heartfelt, honest conversations with people in positions of power to get them to not only see where the gaps are but to believe what their employees are saying, that when they express that those gaps exist, that those pain points exist, and so then what inevitably follows? That is some sort of visioning process. We can't determine the right road if we don't know the destination, and that needs to be collective as well. So we take time and really kind of just slow down the process because leaders inevitably want to jump right into problem solving. Okay, you told me what the problem is. Tell me what are the one, two, three. What's the recipe to fix DEI in my organizational culture, and if I had that answer for you, I would be a very rich woman. But it's not a one size fits all, and so it really does require an extensive amount of collective visioning conversations. What does a day in the life, in the future state of our organization look like? Who's a part of it? How are people engaging with each other? What are the policies and the practices that are just part of the way we all do things that are steeped in DEI, and then we can develop the plan to get there A couple of other things that are really important in the work that we do. One is obviously learning and development. What I am challenging many of my clients to do these days is, yes, absolutely have explicit DEI training, where you're focusing on some of these very pertinent issues around unconscious bias and micro inequities Excuse me and make that a part of the overall organizational learning continuum. So, from the moment a new employee enters the organization, or a volunteer or a board member, from the moment somebody becomes a part of this organization, there is language that tells them this is what we are committed to, this is what we stand for. These are the practices, the skills, the behaviors we expect everyone who is a part of our organization to abide by and then reinforce those skills and those concepts in that language in all of your training, in all of your learning activities, in all of your meetings, and then, once the process becomes again, it's a part of the fabric of the organization. And then the final thing I'll say is, when it comes to sustainability, we have to have accountability, and that means ensuring particularly again with people who are in positions of leadership, management, positions of authority that there are clear and observable behavioral or performance metrics that people must achieve on a regular basis, putting this in performance evaluations, making sure that everybody feels that sense of not only I'm committed to this, I'm bought into the vision, but also it's my, this is part of my job, it is part of my role and responsibility, rather than seeing DEI as this nice to have, this is absolutely tantamount to me being successful in my role in this organization.

Dr. Pelè: 

You have in your book. You've called out the idea that this is DEI for trainers. Help us focus on that. Of course, there's diversity, equity and inclusion for organizations and you could do it for culture or you could focus it anywhere, but why have you focused this on trainers in your book?

Maria Morukian: 

So I prioritized trainers and talent development professionals because I think people in those roles have access to everybody across the organization. So to the point I was making earlier about embedding this into the learning continuum and culture, if I'm in training and talent development, there are regular moments, inflection points across the entire employee life cycle that I have direct access to people where I can make a difference in terms of how they engage with the organization and also I can be a powerful data miner to identify what some of those different perspectives and experiences are. So I think training and talent development professionals play such a profound role. And also what was interesting to me is, after writing the book and publishing it, I heard from so many people who said I'm not a professional trainer. I don't work in the talent development or learning development in my organization. I'm the accidental trainer. I'm the person who either raised my hand and said this matters to me and I want to know how to do it, or I'm a leader or manager that is trying to find ways to make my teams more inclusive, and your book helped me do that. So I think that what's been really exciting is to see that there's a much broader appeal and that these skills and ideas resonate with people, regardless of what their role is.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah, I'm sure you cover what I'm about to ask you in your book, and I'm wondering about blind spots, or what I sometimes call mindset blockers. It's interesting we have our eyes and nose and ears pointing this way forward or that way, but there's nothing behind us, so obviously we can't see behind us. It's a blind spot. Now, this shows up in behavior too. It shows up in our lives and everything that we do. Sometimes we just don't see the full picture. How is it that, or how do you address blind spots when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion Things that get in the way of people making this work?

Maria Morukian: 

Yeah, I think it's normalizing that those blind spots exist, first and foremost, and that all of us have them. And yet all of us are going to have different blind spots, based on our own identities, to which we belong, our lived experiences, even sometimes our current emotional, physical, mental state. We are all of us, just as human beings, the way that our brains function. It's impossible for us to take in all of the information that's around us, and so we have to filter information in and out, and we tend to. Our brains can sometimes be a little bit lazy and they go for the easiest, fastest information that reinforces what we already know about ourselves and others, and so we don't realize because it's happening at such a rapid rate. We don't realize it's happening and we don't realize how powerful it is in terms of influencing not only our perceptions but our decisions, our behaviors and also the way that others then react to us. So there's such a ripple effect to this tunnel vision that we have. One of the things that I've been doing recently to address some of these blind spots with clients is to talk about the. So there's some really interesting work that came out from Harvard Business School, and Lisa Leahy and Robert Keegan wrote a book a few years ago called the Immunity to Change, and the premise of the book is that, even when we are, we think that we are driving toward a conscious stated vision, right, we have our consciously stated goals, this is what we want, this is what we say we want, it's what we know we want. We're putting time, energy, money toward it, and yet why aren't we making the progress that we would hope to? Well, when we pull the, when we kind of pull the onion peels and look underneath, what we often find is that, at the individual, at the group and even at the institutional level, we may be engaging in behaviors that are directly impeding our ability to achieve that stated goal.

Dr. Pelè: 

Wow.

Maria Morukian: 

And why is that? Rather than getting caught up in the defensiveness of well, you say you want this and you're a hypocrite because you're not doing it.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah.

Maria Morukian: 

And asking ourselves from a place of deep curiosity why is that? What are the hidden commitments that I might not even be conscious of that could be holding me back and putting me back into this place of the status quo? And when we can have those thoughtful conversations and address some of those assumptions that are holding us back, that's where we can start to shift our behavior, create new patterns, not only again in terms of our individual behaviors, but at the organizational level. We can really challenge and change some of those practices and structures that have held us in this place of stasis for so long.

Dr. Pelè: 

I really appreciate your commitment to conversations and the fact that we're creating this story together. It's not a one size fits all. Do it now and it's done. It's going to evolve over time and along this idea of how exactly do we improve culture or build cultures that are more inclusive. I have one more question and to me this is another one of those close to my heart things. There's a saying, there's an African saying, that the hunter is always the hero until the hunted gets a chance to tell their story.

Maria Morukian: 

I love that.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah, and I know there's this whole debate hey, don't be the victim versus who's the victim, who's the victor. How do we spark these conversations that allow the hunted I'm just using that word To be the hero a little bit to hear everybody's story, even the leaders and the followers? Everyone gets their story in, so that diversity, inclusion and equity are our effort, not only the effort of leaders who are trying to get employees happier or employees who feel like victims. I'm just throwing that out. How do we do these conversations? How do we start them? Oh gosh so we can talk for hours. Is what you're thinking, right, yeah?

Maria Morukian: 

we can and this is one of the most rewarding parts of my work, I think is when I am able to bring people together for those types of dialogues and witness what happens when people come together and truly listen and share not only their what but their why and humanize each other, even if they walk away still being in complete and utter disagreement on certain aspects or beliefs, but they have seen and heard and just felt with one another. So I can give you a quick example of one story that will always stand out in my mind as one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had as a GEI facilitator. So this was several years ago and I had a group of people and I asked them to read two statements and then, depending on which statement more clearly reflected their beliefs, to go stand on one side of the room or the other, and we started with sort of innocuous like coffee versus tea and Kindle versus paper books and cats versus dogs, but then we shifted into asking them some pretty significant and polarizing questions, and one of the questions where people went from one side of the room to the other was one statement was players and athletes should stand and salute the flag during the national anthem. And on the other side it was players should have the right or opportunity to kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial injustices that are happening in our country, and this is obviously something that has been of significant divisiveness in the US for a number of years. And you saw people get really quiet and start to move kind of slowly to one side or the other based on what they believed, and they're kind of looking around at like, oh, this is on the other side and these are folks that work together and they're like they're not supposed to talk about these things at work, but I said I don't want you to debate, I don't want you to try to argue or win people over to your side. I want you to share your story. Why did you choose to move to this side or the other? And an older white man came up and said I am a veteran, I served in active duty and combat and I've lost many close friends and so who gave their lives, sacrificed themselves, and their families gave that sacrifice as well. So when I see these players kneeling, it makes me angry and sad, because all I can think about is my friends and their family members who have lost so much for our country, and so to me, the act of patriotism, of standing and saluting the flag is one that shows honor to those who have given that ultimate sacrifice, and an African-American woman on the other side came forward and she said you know, I really appreciate you sharing that story. I'm a veteran too. I served in active combat, and the reason I chose to stand on this other side is because, as a black woman, I have lived my entire life experiencing and witnessing others in my community experience not only marginalization and injustice, but violence against us. And I've had to have the conversation with my young boys about what to do or not do if they're ever pulled over by the police, so that they can come home to me at the end of the day. And so for me, when I see these players kneeling, even as a veteran who cares deeply about this country, that to me indicates an act of patriotism. And the whole room was silent. And these two people, you know they didn't cross over to each other's side, but they both saw one another and they found connection, not only in what they had in common, but they heard one another's stories and honored that. And so I think that is just one of the many experiences that I've seen where, when people put all of the the pungetry and the ideologies to the side and just share from the heart who they are and why they are, that's where we start to see this rehumanization take place, and it is powerful.

Dr. Pelè: 

Powerful. I'm gonna echo that because I think that was a masterclass right there. Just great, great teaching on your part. I really connected to what you're saying and you know I'd love to know how all of this gets to the bottom line. You know, there are many skeptics, many leaders, for example, who may say you know, and I love this topic, I believe in these things, I'm open, but how does DEI or things like employee happiness lead us to profitability?

Maria Morukian: 

Right, absolutely what is that link?

Dr. Pelè: 

Can we talk about that link?

Maria Morukian: 

they say Because I'm certain that there are some people listening to this who are like so you're saying that we should go to work and sit down and have these deep conversations about our personal beliefs and stories.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah.

Maria Morukian: 

Yes, to some extent, possibly. And here's why Because when people there's so much research that goes back decades that shows when people feel emotionally connected and invested in the organization, in its mission, in its vision, in its culture, when they feel like the organization cares about them and about others with whom they work, they're more engaged, they have higher levels of trust. We've seen, you know, the Gallup organization has done decades of research on employee engagement and made the direct connection between high levels of engagement and productivity and performance and retention and innovation. And likewise the Edelman group has done a ton of work looking at organizational trust. And when employees feel that deeper sense of trust, they're more willing to not only give discretionary effort but to set aside their own individual wants and needs for the greater good of the organization. So you think about the turmoil that happens when we have any sort of organizational changes, large or small. People are going to be more willing to enter into that unknown territory and trust that the leaders have their back if they feel that sense of inclusion. And then, just simply looking at the changing demographics, not only within the United States but on a global scale, if you want to recruit and retain top talent, if you want to tap into the consumer buying power of our nation. It is profoundly ignorant to not focus on DEI issues at this point in time. When you look at just the significant numbers and increases of buying power of not only those who have been considered racially and ethnically minoritized, but also women. There are far more women in professional positions than in the workforce than ever before. I think we just hit over 50% of women participating in the workforce for, I think, only the first or second time in our history. The significant consumer power of the LGBTQIA plus community and so on and so forth. So there's absolute. It makes deep and meaningful business sense to focus on DEI and it needs to be done in an authentic way and not just window dressing because, also, when we look at it from the perspective of the next generation of the workforce and consumers, they can read between the lines and see what organizations truly care about DEI and are committed to it and who's doing it. Just to check a box. So I think it's absolutely. It is. There's no contest that it has to be something that organizations truly commit to now and for many years into the future.

Dr. Pelè: 

I love that and I have to say, as you just said, you can't just bring the sizzles, you got to bring the steak, and inclusion is not enough. Right, Give us the truth, like, be authentic, be real. I love that. Oh, my goodness, maria, this has been such a conversation. Share with us what you're excited about right now, what you're working on, what you want us to maybe come find, and how people can find you and connect with you online.

Maria Morukian: 

Absolutely so well, as you have mentioned. Thank you so much for sharing information about the book DEI for Trainers, which we actually my company has built, also programming around. So we do programs. We call it the DEI Ambassador Program and it essentially we can come into any organization and help build internal capacity by working with, whether it's people who are formally doing training and talent development or those folks again who are the accidental trainers but want to be a part of that change in the organization. So we give them the skills and the tools to be able to lead these types of DEI training sessions and learning activities in a meaningful way in their organization. So that way you don't just have the benefit of an external trainer coming in once to do this training, but you have people who can continue to provide this on a regular basis and who know the organizational culture really deeply. And the other thing I'm really excited about is we are launching the Ember Program actually coming up in December of 2023 in Washington DC, and Ember is, if you think about that, the embers of the fire are actually hotter than the flames, even though those burn so brightly, and it's important for any of us who are doing this work to be able to ignite those big flames when the need arises, but also to be able to tend to the embers over the long term, and so the whole purpose of the Ember Program is to bring people together who are invested in DEI and engage in community building. Focus not only on how do we address some of these ongoing challenges and systemic barriers that keep wanting to drag us back to that status quo, but also how do we engage in our own and one another's well-being and self-care so that we can maintain that heat over the long term rather than burning out.

Dr. Pelè: 

Powerful stuff, and I will have a link to your LinkedIn page. Do you have any other website? Actually, I'll also have a link to your book on Amazon, but do you have any other website that you would like to share?

Maria Morukian: 

Yeah, people can find my company. It's msmglobalconsultingcom. We're also on socials, msm Global or Maria Maroukian, you can find me. And we also have a podcast called Culture Stew, which you can find on any place where you get access to your podcasts, and Culture Stew, similarly to this podcast, is all about bringing people together to share stories, to share some of the common challenges, but also solutions and best practices to address critical DEI issues in our society today.

Dr. Pelè: 

Awesome, Maria. It has been a pleasure to learn from you, to meet you. Thank you so much for being a guest on the Profitable Happiness Podcast.

Maria Morukian: 

Thank you.

Dr. Pelè: 

Thanks for tuning in to the Profitable Happiness Podcast. For more episodes, visit DrPalletcom. And remember get happy first and success will follow.


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