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DEI & Corporate Culture

 Discerning Organizational Culture BEFORE DEI Execution 

Culture—not vision or strategy—is the most powerful factor in any organization. It determines the receptivity of staff and volunteers to new ideas, unleashes or dampens creativity, builds or erodes enthusiasm, and creates a sense of pride or deep discouragement about working or being involved there. Ultimately, the culture of an organization—particularly in churches and nonprofit organizations, but also in any organization—shapes individual morale, teamwork, effectiveness, and outcomes.

—Samuel R. Chand

  As a leader, one of the most difficult lessons I have learned is the significance of managing organizational culture. Through many years of working with organizations as an employee and consultant, I have discovered that leaders can have the loftiest strategic plan for organizational change; however, if the company’s culture is resistant to that change, the plan will ultimately fail. Most importantly, if the current organizational culture is unhealthy, to begin with, introducing any dramatic change will make it even more difficult to execute. Having said this, I am urging leaders to do a thorough evaluation of their current corporate culture before moving forward with a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program. As organizational leaders grapple with developing DEI programs, it is also crucial for them to make this assessment before selecting an appropriate agent of change to facilitate reform on this level. The term “agent of change” means the person who is or will be responsible for initiating conversations and implementing programs around diversity, equity, and inclusion. By making a preliminary assessment of the organization’s current culture, leaders will be better equipped to lay the foundation for which they can build an effective DEI experience for their employees or constituents.

The Discernment Process

 When approaching the process of evaluating organizational culture, I think it is important to look at some of the conditions that seemingly permeate extraordinarily productive cultures and those conditions that fuel extremely toxic environments. Based on my observation (over twenty-years), I would conjecture that most organizational cultures fall somewhere along the scale between two extremes. In other words, most organizations are somewhere on a scale between being either high-performing or extremely toxic. Chand describes the scale of these two extremes as accepting cultures versus toxic cultures (Chand 2011, 25-32). 

Although Chand and other organizational scholars discuss corporate types that are gradations of the cultural extremes, for the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on the two extremes. Another dynamic I have observed is, in some instances, organizational environments  may seem to be high-performing when leaders present their data analysis. Yet, in reality, the data analysis is sometimes either flawed or intentionally biased.     

Accordingly, I  am suggesting that assessing culture is a discernment process that requires evaluators to look beyond key performance indicators (KPI’s), internal surveys, and focus groups when determining cultural health. Moreover, I would argue that corporate cultural discernment is both an art and a science. It requires a deeper intuitive look into the metrics because what people appear to be saying is often veiled by the fear of social or political retribution. 

Employee surveys can be helpful (when there is active participation). Nevertheless,  it has been my experience that even under the best conditions, results are often biased in favor of those benefitting from the dominant organizational culture. The results are biased partly due to the lack of employee trust that their responses are being collected anonymously. Additionally, many employees opt out of these surveys altogether because they do not believe leaders will use the information to problem solve. Therefore, employees conclude that their assessment of the environment is meaningless. Many organizational leaders do not seek impartial survey coordinators because the results may expose weaknesses in the leadership. 

 Discernment goes beyond analyzing data from the research. In fact, it intentionally probes the sentiments of those groups who have opted out of being part of the dominant culture. The underlying dominant culture usually determines if a thorough evaluation of disenfranchised workers occurs in earnest. Naturally, silencing the disenfranchised is especially prominent in those organizations that express the desire to promote equality but never analyze the cultural barriers that led to workplace inequality in the first place. Silencing disenfranchised work populations does not necessarily mean that they are not allowed to talk. On the contrary, some groups are encouraged to express anger; however, ensuing actions to mitigate the anger or discontent are ceremonial at best.   

Organizational analysis can only be achieved through external objective counsel. Internal counsel during the discernment process presents a conflict of interest for organizational leaders because they are essentially leading the process instead of being led by it. Change begins with creating a culture of communication that permits the expression of uncomfortable truths alongside workable solutions. Discernment is never fast or easy; it is often slow and painful.  

Healthy Organizational Cultures

According to Chand, some of the characteristics of accepting (or healthy) organizational cultures include relational dynamics where open and honest communication thrives, workers are supportive of each other’s goals, and leaders are invested in developing every individual (Chand 2011, 25), not just a chosen few. In these healthy organizations, authority is decentralized, and “leaders cultivate an atmosphere of trust and respect” (Chand 2011, 22). Also,  there are fewer turf battles in healthy organizations because everyone understands their role and significance in producing favorable outcomes for all stakeholders. Workers collaborate because they believe that their contribution to the team is valued and respected. Most importantly, modeling internal nurturing environments empowers organizations to deliver on brand promises.

Toxic Organizational Cultures 

Chand describes toxic organizations as “closed systems,” where the “dignity of staff members are surrendered to the powerful elite” (Chand 2011, 32). Other features of toxic work environments include giving workers the responsibility to produce results without the authority to fulfill their roles. Authority is centralized at the top of the hierarchy where fear and control loom large.    

Boards of Directors and other leadership groups are all demanding that organizations implement DEI programs in response to the recent racial outrage in our country. Pressures from political and other external stakeholders want organizations to act quickly to demonstrate their solidarity with equality for all. However, what leaders are encountering as they execute these programs, is the same resistance the entire country is experiencing on a national level.


This blog post highlights the idea that due to political pressures from various outside sources, organizations are not taking time to evaluate their current work environments before introducing DEI programming. Most organizational cultures fall somewhere on a scale between the two extremes that characterize work environments. The two extremes are accepting and toxic cultures. The pressure to take immediate action to implement DEI programs should not override a crucial preliminary analysis of the current culture before introducing fundamental change. Executive leaders should be honest about the current state of their organizations and be willing to address the core issues that create unhealthy work environments. 


Chan, Samuel. 2011. Cracking Your Church’s Culture: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision & Inspiration. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint.  

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