Building Our “Mistake Muscles”: 5 Takeaways from Real Talk by Catalyst (Blog Post)
Over three days, business leaders, change-makers, and scholars offered candid reflections on navigating inclusive workplace culture change.
A year ago, we shared a vision for a new Catalyst convening called Real Talk by Catalyst. The convening would shine a light on tough, complex, and sensitive issues related to workplace equity and inclusion. It would be a call to action. A path forward.
Last week, with the help of many colleagues, our vision became a reality.
Over three days, on December 7-9, 2021, more than 300 business leaders, changemakers, scholars, activists, and CEOs convened virtually to have honest, sometimes difficult conversations about topics such as mental health and psychological safety, privilege and power dynamics, cultural identity, allyship, organizational and personal growth, and racial and gender equity at work.
We discussed the challenges involved in making meaningful change—and delivered a call to action for building a more equitable future of work. Each day had a theme: Real Talk about Humanity at Work, Real Talk about Making Mistakes and Real Talk about Becoming Better. Below are just some of the many inspiring takeaways:
- Practice and prepare for difficult conversations.
- Making change means embracing mistakes.
- Racism is not an individual problem; it’s a systemic issue.
- Actions matter as much as intentions.
- Building equity requires sharing power.
“When was the last time you realized you were great at something you had never practiced?” asked Derek Avery, PhD, C.T. Bauer Chair of Inclusive Leadership in the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. Avery outlined some key ground rules through which leaders should approach these discussions. The #1 rule: Be intentional. “Don’t just spring these tough conversations on people without warning—we need to be respectful of how difficult this is but create a path for it to happen anyway.”
Jade Pichette, Manager of Programs at Pride at Work Canada / Fierté au travail Canada, also shared an essential ingredient for helping people prepare and move through difficult conversations: “Psychological safety is the space where we don’t feel we need to cover,” they said.
Nana Addison, Founder of CURL Agency, a Berlin-based company specializing in diverse management and brand consulting, noted that being a true ally means being willing to put yourself in uncomfortable situations—and sometimes making mistakes. “Admitting our mistakes is not always easy, she noted, but we must all work to build our “mistake muscles.”
Pascale Diverlus, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter – Toronto, also emphasized the need for companies and leaders to do the hard work of listening to criticism and taking real action. “People are more terrified of being called racist than of actually being racist,” she said.
A keynote speaker, John Amaechi OBE, organisational psychologist, founder of APS Intelligence, and former NBA player, shared some of the most candid and inspiring insights on how to react when we do make mistakes. “Don’t feel guilty—it’s a selfish emotion. Instead, feel responsible. When we toss individual bad actions out of our brains, it only makes it more likely we will do it again. Embrace mistakes. Don’t toss them.”
As for what we should do if we witness mistakes made by others? Amaechi had some good advice for those situations too: “We need to reframe holding people to account. It’s not a bad thing. We are doing something generous, truly meaningful for our colleagues.” Accountability is vital, he continued, because “culture is defined by the worst behavior we tolerate”—meaning it’s our responsibility to make positive change.
Jared Karol, author of the book A White Guy Confronting Racism, offered some harsh truths and urged White colleagues to acknowledge the systemic nature of racism and their privilege. “The kneejerk response from White people to dismiss stories of racism–even from people they know–is a lack of awareness of our own privilege,” he said. “Racism is a systemic problem. It’s not about you as an individual White person, but you have a role to play in changing the system.”
James Elfer, CEO of MoreThanNow, a UK-based behaviour science practice agency, noted the need to look beyond intentions and examine actions. “Changing people’s intentions does not mean they will change their actions. The system we exist in can influence and bias our actions—how we run meetings, how we make decisions. Even if we have the desire to change our behavior, that is not enough. We need an organization that [is set up to bias us for better outcomes].” Karol called upon people to speak up and challenge racist statements and behavior. “One question we need to ask ourselves is: How does my silence serve me?”
Evan Siddall, CEO of AIMCo (Alberta Investment Management Corporation), offered humble reflections on his own privilege and responsibility as a White male leader. “I walk into a room, any room, with the feeling that I belong there. But a lot of other people don’t have that advantage,” he said. “It’s the imperative of leadership that you must share power [with marginalized groups].” That, he added, means “giving people a vote, a voice, a veto—real power over decision-making that will impact them.” Lorraine Hariton, President & CEO, Catalyst, agreed, saying that CEOs need to “commit to listening, learning, evolving, and becoming better to create true equity and make change.”
We were inspired not only by the amazing conversations we had throughout the three days, but also by the conversations that occurred in the virtual chatroom and networking sessions. So many attendees shared their personal stories of making mistakes, experiencing bias or discrimination, and facing hard truths about their own privileges and challenges faced.
Let us all aspire to continue this culture of Real Talk in our daily workplaces.
Acknowledgments and More Information
A special thank you to our donors: Pfizer, Accenture, Morgan Stanley, Nationwide, The Coca-Cola Company, Dell, KeyBank, Kimberley-Clark Corporation, KKR, KPMG, Raytheon Technologies, UPS, Edward Jones, and Pitney Bowes.
We are also tremendously grateful for the 35 esteemed speakers from all over the world for your expertise and invaluable insights.
You will also receive exclusive access to our conversation with Mr. Philonise Floyd, Activist and Brother of George Floyd, where he offers a much needed voice on creating a world free of bias.
Do you want to advance your Lead for Equity and Inclusion (LEI) learning further? Read about our LEI workshops and contact Terrence Underwood, EdD, to learn more about signing up.
Dr. Dnika J. Travis, former Vice President, Research & Strategy, at Catalyst, is a recognized researcher, educator, and change leader. At Catalyst, Dnika led research initiatives and managed content creation. Her work involved building and piloting the Catalyst Inclusion Accelerator, a diagnostic and action planning tool to help companies measure…
Terrence was Head, Implementation Partnership at Catalyst. He was responsible for all aspects of Program Management for Leading With Inclusion, including business development, relationship management, and product marketing. Terrence has over 20 years of experience in diversity and inclusion, leadership, and organizational development. He has pioneered research on anger management…