Interview

How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives

Minal Bopaiah, the author of Equity, helps us see we need very thoughtful, intentional change to create a more equitable and inclusive system of all people.

Bill Fox
Nov 8, 2021
6 min read
Minal Bopaiah, Founder, Brevity & Wit, and author of Equity.

Table of Contents

Minal Bopaiah: Founder, Brevity & Wit. Author of Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives.


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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

I love that question because there's so much in that question itself. My first response is that we need to operationalize what we mean by all of those things. When we say “every voice matters,” what does that actually mean? Are we saying everybody should get a vote in every decision?

I think everybody's opinion, expertise, and perspective should be heard, but I often give the example that vaccination mandates shouldn't be done by consensus. We have to somewhat defer to the people with certain areas of expertise. And then, unlike the CDC, we need to do a better job of explaining it to everybody else as to why that decision was made and then be held accountable for the repercussions of that decision, good and bad.

When we talk about change and innovation, what do we really mean by that? Things changed a lot this year, some good, some bad. Some that led to more equality and inclusion, most of which led to less equality and inclusion. I don't want change for change's sake. I want transformation, but transformation needs some stability because we can tolerate only so much change as human beings.

And to that point, I'm not sure change and innovation occurring naturally is always a good thing because naturally seems to imply with minimal effort. And since we live in a system that is baked in white supremacy and patriarchy, change that happens naturally will continue to uphold those systems of oppression. We actually need very thoughtful, intentional change to create a more equitable and inclusive system of all people.

What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?

I think that comes when you have two things. You need to see people as actual people in the wholeness of their life even if you don't know about certain parts of their life. And they may not want to share it. They may have boundaries and don't want to share everything about themselves. But just that cognizance that their job is just a portion of their life is critical for leadership. Their job is a small part of their day, or maybe a large part of their day, but it’s not their full day.

In terms of best performance, we need to really socialize and get comfortable with differences and allow people to play to their strengths. Somebody's best performance may be in one area that may not be something that you value as an individual but is super critical to the organization. And so, embracing difference and allowing people to play to their strengths will enable people to perform to their potential.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

I think they really long for a community of care with some amount of autonomy over their job and their day. And those things sort of balance each other. They want to feel supported, but they don't want to feel suffocated. They want to be given direction, but they want to exercise their autonomy to choose how to do things. Workplaces should be clear about where employees have autonomy and where they don't. I think that's really what people long for in their jobs, as well as just being treated with basic human decency.

I read a fascinating article today about how there's all this language in the US right now about a labor shortage. One person applied for sixty or a hundred jobs (for which he was qualified) to see what happened. Out of all of those applications, he got one interview. It was for a job that advertised it would pay $10 an hour, but then they said, "No, we want you to start at eight dollars and change." They wanted full-time availability even though the work would only be part-time. So he had to be available for them even though they wouldn't be employing him full time. That's not treating somebody's time or humanity respectfully. I think that's what people long for: to be treated like their time matters as much as yours.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

The most important question leaders can ask employees is “how do they deal with differences?” Howard Ross, a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) practitioner that I've worked with, talks a lot in his book, Our Search for Belonging, about how our workplaces are often the most diverse spaces we’re in. Our neighborhoods have become segregated; our schools have become segregated; our places of worship are segregated. The workplace is where you see the most diversity, so bridging differences is a necessary 21st-century skill for employment.

To have an equitable and inclusive organization, you need leaders who are not afraid of difference — leaders who really embrace difference and welcome it in.

What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

The most important question that any employee should ask, particularly an employee from any marginalized identity, is how is conflict dealt with in this organization?

Time and time again, what I see with my clients is that one of the largest obstacles to true diversity, equity, and inclusion is that leaders -- particularly those who have been raised or assimilated into white culture -- are conflict avoidant. If you are conflict avoidant or a people-pleaser, it's hard, if not impossible, to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work in your organization. Conflict is natural. Conflict always happens. But if people are conflict avoidant, conflict happens behind closed doors or people's backs. Or it's passive-aggressive because people can't talk about it openly.

The minute you put two people together, there's going to be a difference of opinion about something. Now, you've put a hundred to a thousand people together. Think about how many differences of opinion are and different ways of doing things. And so there's going to be that natural conflict. I think how well organizations can manage conflict is one of the best measures of their success and ability to change and transform as the world changes.

What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

What lights me up from within? I don't know if we get to be happy in life. I don't know if we get to be successful. But, I fundamentally believe that our jobs as humans are to find what lights us up -- particularly if you're not a cisgender male and the world hasn't been designed for you, you have likely been conditioned to think that you are supposed to be in service of others. All the time. 24/7. My advice is that you should be utterly ruthless about doing what lights you up from within. It is only by filling your own cup that you'll have anything to give anybody else.

I had a very sort of eclectic career. I was in a lot of different fields and had a lot of different jobs. That whole time I think what I was really doing was gathering skills. I read an excellent book called So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport, which talks about how following your passion is not great advice. It's really easy to be passionate about an idea, but executing on an idea takes some amount of skillfulness.

What I have found in my life to be more true, is that when I engage in the daily exercise of skills that light me up, it's easy to direct my energy towards whatever cause I'm passionate about. But if I start with the cause, then the more responsible question is, what does this cause need?

For example, ten years ago, it was really hot and trendy to be into global health in Africa. If you really want to solve or make an impact on HIV and AIDS in Africa, the most critical skill that's needed for that is supply chain management. Getting condoms, medicines, and healthcare necessities to remote areas is the most critical thing that's needed. I would find it incredibly boring to work on supply chain management day after day after day. But what I found is that what I do love is writing and creating experiences through workshops. I love public speaking. How can I use that to serve something larger that's not just about my ego and self-expression but is about serving something larger?

When I landed a job at Cook Ross with Howard Ross, it was after I had worked for many nonprofits and for a variety of causes. But when I got into the diversity equity and inclusion space, it felt like I had come home. It felt like I could spend my life doing this work. Even if I didn't make any progress on it, I wouldn't resent that. My joy in doing this work is in no way tied to external successes. This is what I want to spend my life writing and talking about.

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