Diversity, groupthink and box-ticking
In the 80’s, I worked as a management consultant for one of the big global firms, consulting on cultural change. Overcoming team challenges was important and diversity was an issue then, as it is now – only it had a different name: discrimination. And, corporately, it was more likely to be linked to gender and physical disability. Unfortunately, that was also a different time and place, in a predominantly white, male, business sector, and there was a commonly proffered ‘solution’ to the problem – to employ a woman who needed to use crutches and who was from the BAME and LGBTQ+ communities – only the descriptors were a bit shorter and less ‘pc’. The intent of this ‘solution’ though was clear: one employee to tick the four ‘discrimination’ boxes.
In my opinion, that’s where (and when) it all started to go wrong….the origin of “diversity” being an equal numbers game…demonstrating commitment by having marginalised groups ‘represented’ on the workforce…even creating roles to ‘manage’ this as a function…box ticking to be compliant with well-meaning norms and expectations: looking for solutions in structure alone.
The inevitable impact of a compliance approach to diversity
This ‘compliance’ driven approach continues to be at the heart of D&I training and interventions, and their failure, on the whole, to create behaviour change. As a result of these surface-level approaches, all too often what these initiatives do…however well intentioned…is focus on, and strengthen the perspective of, what creates the difference – paradoxically often causing more issues than they resolve. The very essence of this work is to be clear on the characteristics that marginalise a person, or group of people, to be clear about how they are being ‘defined’, creating categories of people, as opposed to just people.
Somewhat ironically, this has created even more complication as the definitions of what can marginalise someone increase….such that we now have the concept of “superdiversity”, embracing even more identified differences! So, “diversity” creates a label for groups of people. Then, ironically, we look for the similarities to define who belongs in that group. The reality, of course, is that we are all different, diverse from each other. No two human beings are the same. Yet we are driven by this process to attempt to create some homogenous group and then develop a strategy to ‘manage’ or ‘cope with’ that group – and not the individual people.
If I say to you now “don’t think of an elephant!”, what happens? The first thing you do is think of an elephant. How useful, then, is the concept of ‘protected characteristics’, for example? What does it make you immediately focus on if not “how does that make ‘them’ different from me?” So all this well-meaning training brings laser focus to the differences: what “they” do that is different; the norms that may not match “ours” in “their” world; the language “they” use, etc. Working with unconscious bias, because it is directed inwardly rather than outwardly, is about the only area that isn’t influenced by whether we are in the “us” group or the “them”!
Shift the focus to inclusion
Talent is talent, irrespective of background, gender, ethnicity, age…whatever. I am always surprised at how “surprised” we are that organisations embracing diversity show signs of increased creativity, innovation, engagement and wellbeing. Why wouldn’t they be? Isn’t variety the spice of life? A diverse pool of knowledge, experience, skills, ways of thinking, paradigms and perspectives is always going to be a much richer and exciting place to be than one where everyone holds the same point of view or believes the same things.
If nothing else, current politics is showing us quite clearly the danger on focusing on what separates us. We have to shift this focus to inclusion. Structurally, organisations should be attracting and employing people with diverse experiences, backgrounds, knowledge, skillsets…enrolled on the basis of what they can bring, or contribute, not on their membership of a marginalised community. Then we look at how to create a culture in the organisation that promotes full realisation of everyone’s potential.
Numbers alone aren’t going to shift any behaviours. It is the relationship systems that run through an organisation, and company, a community, that will create shift. What we need to improve is how, in these structures, we learn to be in positive, supportive and respectful relationships with other human beings…people, not groups of people. Recognise and understand our biases and judgement by all means, and then step from there into empowering relationships: human to human. Sharing and celebrating the richness of our differences and how they complement is how we grow. Not by isolating and judging them. It’s a central component of creating great teams that set minds and hearts on fire and one way to support your team after lockdown.
I therefore propose a change of emphasis: we no longer work in the field of ‘Diversity and Inclusion’, rather our work is directed towards building the relational skills of ‘Inclusion of Diversity’. (Whilst also, of course, considering the concept of parity – more on that to follow).
Fancy talking to us about what this shift might mean for you…?
Thoughts and reflections by Martyn Lowesmith, Team Development Specialist at Sky Space.
Martyn is a leadership, team, relationship and organisational coach with a global career spanning 30 years. He is based in Somerset in the UK and works with organisations, teams, partnerships and individuals.
He brings his experience and knowledge to all his work and continues to develop his own thinking around how to to support clients towards their potential and bring them into right relationship with humanity.
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