Diversity and inclusion: What’s the big deal?
Organizations have sought to achieve diverse workforces for decades. But, some early attempts in the 80s were ill-conceived. Companies even recruited individuals merely to achieve diversity quotas, often asking the recruits not to attend for work, “Just take the pay and stay at home!” We have moved on a long way since then. Or have we?
Let’s be clear, corporate attention to diversity was not typically driven by ethics, morals and philanthropic prowess. Far from it! And may not be even now! It was typically driven by a commercial reality – the need to achieve sustainable profitable growth.
Globalization had exposed organizations to the challenges of selling and marketing in cultures and languages which were often poorly understood with some grave results. This coincided with the start of mass migration, leading to significant changes in the demographics of domestic workforces. And, this also coincided with a shift in social attitudes to family life and work, leading to large numbers of females entering the workforce. More recently, social media has enabled and fuelled debates about the importance of diversity across a much wider range of dimensions including religion, age, sexual orientation, family structure, education, background, physical ability, medical conditions, and even dietary preferences.
At senior levels, the bottom-line impact is still the major driver and so many companies are now investing heavily in diversity – tightly monitoring their diversity metrics, providing diversity training, implementing affirmative action initiatives, and publicising their achievements as widely as possible. But the goals for many still seem to be elusive.
Many companies are now investing heavily in diversity – tightly monitoring their diversity metrics, providing diversity training, and publicizing their achievements as widely as possible. But the goals for many still seem to be elusive
So, what’s the big deal? If the need for diverse workforces is so obvious (this has been debated long and hard now for nearly 40 years!), why do we still struggle to achieve our goals? I suggest a few reasons:
- Just because an idea is considered to be correct, does not always make implementing it easy or even possible. A few years ago, I worked with an organization, the board of which, set five year targets for diversity. Part of this goal was for a certain percentage of senior positions to be filled by females – an admirable diversity goal which was widely publicized. So, what’s the problem? The problem was that, if they had studied and understood their data, they would have easily seen the flaw. Achievement of the goal was not possible given their prevailing mix of workers in the reporting roles and with the very low attrition rates that they had. Even if they filled every likely vacancy over the period with a female and, every time there was a senior vacancy, filled it with a female from the levels below, the goal could not be achieved. A classic example of Optimism Bias and failure to attend to the data.
- Whilst we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of females entering the full-time workforce, that has not always led to similar percentages wanting the move into senior roles. Irrespective of the reasons, this is still an issue that, in many cultures, still needs to be resolved. Great strides have been made to enable anyone to apply for, be considered, and be selected for more senior roles. But the work has not always been done to make those roles appealing or practical. Many such roles still demand unsocial hours, unpredictable hours, extensive travel, and even working practices and environments that many consider undesirable.
- It has long been known that most final decisions are made on an emotional rather than logical basis. Data and logic can make decision options acceptable. But, emotional factors often drive the final selection from a range of those logical options. Thus, final people-decisions are especially prone to this and are massively impacted by the decision makers’ unconscious biases. More about the impact of unconscious bias in a moment.
- Over the past few years, we have realized that even diversity in our workforces is not what we need. What we need is inclusion of diverse capabilities. A few years ago, I was attending a client’s monthly senior management meeting. On the agenda was, “Strengthening our organization through diversity.” One of the senior managers was in full flow with his PowerPoint slides and an impassioned presentation of actions in his division to get more females into management positions. Much to the surprise of those in the meeting, the chairman banged his hands on the table and blurted out, “Why the heck are you focusing on that when you don’t listen to the ones you already have in post.” The sound of the immediate silence was deafening! But, this is the real challenge. Any commercial value will not come merely from achieving diversity (covering all of the appropriate dimensions, not merely genders). In fact, the effort and impact of attention solely to diversity can be negative! The value only comes from their inclusion.
- We are only just beginning to understand the issue of inclusion and neuroscience has played a large part in increasing our understanding. We now know how our unconscious biases and our ingrained operating habits have a major impact on our interactions with others. This, in turn, affects how they feel, think and act following our interactions. I have recently been privileged to work with a multi-national organization, providing their managers with training on how to spot the existence of unconscious bias, evaluate its potential impact, and take action to reduce or remove that impact. You see, we all have unconscious biases and they are unique to each of us due to our different education, nurture, experiences, etc. Unless we become aware of them, they affect our everyday working. For example, we may always greet males with whom we play golf seconds before we greet others; we may always pay just a little more attention to those ethnically similar to ourselves; we may give more weight to an idea put forward by someone with similar sexual orientation to us; all of these micro-behaviours (many thousands of others in a day) have an invisible and often untraceable impact on the relationships we have with others, and consequently how they feel, think and act i.e., how included they feel or are! None of this shows up in any diversity data and is often hidden in other data such as engagement, exit interviews, etc.
- And lastly, my pet peeve! If we want to achieve diversity and inclusion, then we must put the right people into people-management positions. Yes, here comes my mantra! “The significant differentiator of sustainably successful organizations is the caliber of their management and leadership.”
We must prepare individuals before they apply for or are considered for people-management positions so that they can make an informed judgment as to whether it is right for them.
We must be ruthless in our selections and only select those who want to be people-managers and who have demonstrable potential to succeed.
We must closely monitor or buddy all new management appointments and take corrective action with the first 120 days if needed.
It has long been known that most final decisions are made on an emotional rather than logical basis. Data and logic can make decision options acceptable. But, emotional factors often drive the final selection from a range of those logical options
We must make continuous professional development (CPD) an absolute requirement for continuation in a people-management position. That development must include frequent training in the importance of diversity and inclusion, and the role of Unconscious Bias in achieving it.
What’s the big deal? Most organizations still have a long way to go. Perhaps they have not calculated the potential benefits. Perhaps they do not understand the issues. Let’s start addressing the causes of low diversity and inclusion so that we can cap our investment in addressing the symptoms. That’s a tried and tested approach to most management challenges.