Does your office culture need desalinating?

It’s 2015 — women, minorities, people with disabilities, LGBT and First Nations people should no longer feel like fish out of water in Canada’s boardrooms.

Much has been written about the dearth of women and minorities in boardrooms and C-suites in Canadian companies. Smart leaders understand the competitive advantages of having diverse teams and the difference they make to the top and bottom lines. With such a strong business case for changing the status quo, why do our top ranks still look the same?

We need to look for answers in our corporate culture. In spite of all the talk about change in Canadian boardrooms, our corporate culture is still essentially a white male culture, and it’s preventing the kind of progress savvy leaders know is vital to long-term success. It’s not that people are inherently opposed to change; it’s just that we haven’t cultivated the conditions in which change can happen.

Let me describe it a different way. Imagine, for a moment, that our corporate culture is saltwater. For decades, the only fish that swam in the corporate stream were salmon. They thrived. They didn’t know the water was salty; it was just normal.

Then someone introduced freshwater fish. At first they appeared to swim just fine in the water, but then they started to struggle — they found it harder and harder to breathe. Some even moved to other streams.

No one could understand why they had trouble. Saltwater works for salmon, so why doesn’t it work for freshwater fish? The freshwater fish knew the water didn’t feel right. But salt is invisible so it was hard to see the problem.

To help them, the salmon outfitted the freshwater fish with little oxygen tanks attached to their gills. But the oxygen tanks were heavy and the freshwater fish found it harder to swim.

Many of us are like the freshwater fish that adapted. Swimming is harder and slower but we can still make progress.

But what about the freshwater fish that left the salty stream, the ones that said the stream wasn’t for them? They felt they weren’t getting upstream as fast as the salmon so they started to doubt their swimming ability. In the same way, how many corporate women have thought, “Everyone else is fine; it must be me,” or felt like outsiders in a room full of insiders? I know I have.

To change the discussion, we need to change the water.

It’s not sustainable or practical to outfit all women, minorities, people with disabilities, LGBT and First Nations people with oxygen tanks, such as coaching programs on how to behave or women’s networks to help women feel like they belong in our corporate culture. We need to desalinate the water.

Until we understand how the salt manifests itself in our culture, our progress toward an inclusive workplace and society will continue to be stalled.

It isn’t easy, but if we focus on creating a more inclusive culture, we can make progress. And when we do that, our economy will flourish and our productivity and innovation will soar.

So what can we do at an individual level to desalinate the water?

Start with yourself. Understand your biases. You can take the Harvard Implicit Bias test online. You may be surprised at what you learn; I was.

Observe team dynamics closely. Identify the salt granules in your culture and develop tactics and measures to eradicate them. Hold yourself and your leaders accountable to enable real change.

Lead. Every one of us, especially in the C-suite, is responsible for the culture of our respective organizations. We need to lead the change we want to see.

It’s 2015. Do we want our talented people fulfilling their potential and growing our top companies or do we want them feeling like fish out of water?

About the Author

Fiona Macfarlane


Fiona Macfarlane is managing partner of EY's British Columbia practice and the firm's chief inclusiveness officer.

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