As manufacturing leaders, we spend much of our time thinking about how we can solve pressing problems through the most advanced systems at our disposal.
So, I’m enthralled by an approach to organizational culture and inclusion that is decidedly low-tech. It brings literature — short stories from science fiction to religion and everything in between — to the manufacturing floor, and with great results. The approach comes from a nonprofit named Reflection Point that turned science to invent a program where people from all levels of an organization come together for facilitated discussions and designed to build better cultures and stronger teams.
“We fundamentally believe,” Ann Kowal Smith, Reflection Point’s executive director, recently told me, “that organizations that invest in the relationships between their colleagues are the ones that can really leverage innovation, are better collaborators, and ultimately are able to be more inclusive – and perform better – than organizations that don’t.”
And research supports this idea, showing that companies that prize inclusion on all levels, including diversity of background and gender, operate at higher performance levels. According to tech research and consulting firm Gartner, for instance, inclusive teams improved performance by 30 percent in high-diversity environments. Yet only 27 percent of leaders say inclusion is a strong part of their culture and values.
With the stakes particularly high for manufacturers in today’s competitive and chaotic operating environment, I’ve seen how important it is to find innovative ways to build workplace cultures where people feel included and want to join – and stay.
The Reflection Point Approach
In nearly a half-decade working with Reflection Point at MAGNET, our nonprofit manufacturing consulting firm in Northeast Ohio, I’ve seen up close how their innovative approach has helped bring our team closer together and instill a more vibrant, productive, and inclusive culture .
Reflection Point’s group discussions centering around short stories take conversations among colleagues outside the crush of the day-to-day and to a place where the barriers usually present between teammates tend to come tumbling down. By using professional facilitators to stir up worthwhile issues, these dialogues allow people to shed the dynamics of the workplace and come as who they truly are.
Manufacturing companies by nature are heavily hierarchical places, but during Reflection Point sessions, every person from the c-suite executive to the warehouse worker is varied on the same level, just human being bringing their own backgrounds and life experiences to the discussion.
“Our approach lets people see where they have things in common, but it also gives people a chance to take a step back and say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot more to this person than I realized,’ because they might have only passed them in the hallway once or twice,” says Kowal Smith.
Specially trained facilitators carefully choose stories based on organizational objectives, and then guide conversations to draw out and get past specific issues holding teams back. With normal hierarchical barriers washed away, these conversations lead to meaningful connections that spill over into the day-to-day. “It’s more than just promoting good relationships,” Kowal Smith says. “It’s about building the skills of collective intelligence: listening with humility, asking good questions, challenging assumptions, disagreeing with respect, and widening the circle of empathy.”
Employees feel more comfortable speaking up while the entire team ends up with a greater sense of belonging. In a recent example, Kowal Smith recalls a woman who was the head of marketing at an engineering firm, who had never quite felt like she could weigh in on anything outside of her specific purview. But after several Reflection Point meetings in which she shared and asked questions among her colleagues, that started to change.
“Reflection Point becomes a practice ground for the conversations. Many teams need to be having—building confidence and making space for ideas that are often unspoken,” Kowal Smith says.
One of the most incredible aspects of the program is its ability to bring together people from all kinds of backgrounds to discuss their viewpoints on the world and workplace in a setting that is nonjudgmental. When organizations want to foster inclusion, Kowal Smith’s team will introduce stories that feed into deep discussions on race and equity.
A recent favorite of the program is from the writer Chibundu Onuzo, a short story about a young Nigerian woman who wants to go into banking, and is instructed by a mentor, an older black woman, to change things like her hair, her name, and the way she dresses to make it in the business.
“The story is really about her own internal wrestling with how to preserve her authenticity in the face of being instructed to change so many of the things that made her who she was,” says Kowal Smith. From that story, Kowal Smith says, springs forth many useful conversations about race and the workplace, the homogenization of the “ideal” worker, and things like mentorship and allyship. They also allow leaders to assess what else they could be doing to make all workers feel welcome.
Why It Matters for Manufacturers
As things stand today, 80 percent of manufacturing employees are white, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. With talent at an all-time premium, companies can no longer afford to ignore so much of the talent pool. Recruiting and promoting diversity is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing for anyone who wants to win the hotlyed competition for today’s talent. That means our thinking and our cultures have to change.
That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the Reflection Point approach. Get people in a room and, through shared story, allow us all to see the humanity in who we work next to, to show ourselves more fully, and through those connections feel more valued for who we are.
It’s a way to go a step beyond the summer barbecue or quarterly happy hour and foster relationships that truly matter. And the best part? It works (and not just in manufacturing – across industries). Survey data from before and after the program show improvements in social connection, psychological safety, and belonging, moving the needle significantly in areas such as, “I feel safe to take a risk in this organization” or “I can speak up even though I know that others disagree.”
“A lot of where the diversity efforts fail is if you don’t make a corresponding investment in inclusion and collaboration, don’t give people a place to bring in their best selves,” Kowal Smith says. “With the attrition rates we’re seeing in the workplace these days, it’s incumbent upon everybody to find ways to make people feel valued and wanted, because if they don’t feel valued and wanted, they’re going to vote with their feet .”
In my work, I see a lot of manufacturers struggling with “where to start” when it comes to culture building, diversity, and inclusion. The reality is, there is no “one right way” to make change happen. It takes a lot of different approaches and a lot of hard work. The best advice I can give is just start. Start somewhere, keep going, and be open minded. I never imagined that discussing stories would help my team work better together – but that’s exactly what happened.