Diversity: It’s Not All About Your S.E.L.F.
I’ve recently run large diversity and inclusion programmes in some big organisations. I didn’t plan to. I don’t have it on the list of things I do. It was demand-driven. I was asked to. I am acutely aware that in the dictionary, next to the word ‘diversity’ is a picture of me with the caption ‘not this guy’. I’m white, straight, male, able-bodied, tall, etc. The only aspects of me of disadvantaged diversity are that I grew up poor and I’m weird. And, most days, I’m pretty good at keeping those two under wraps.
In putting the programmes together, drawing on some genuinely diverse people and resources, I merely facilitated lots and lots of groups of people. It would be too easy to have talkfests that meant a box could be ticked on someone in HR’s plan without anything being achieved or changed. If diversity was easy, it would have been done and programmes wouldn’t be needed. We were committed to making this effort one that was about actions and change.
I learned a lot.
Overt bias is easy to deal with for a workplace leader. Often, it’s against a policy or a law. Tougher to deal with is unconscious bias, especially if it’s your own. Years ago, I did my own little piece of research around job descriptions with only one variable changed. That being the name – to make it very female or very non-Anglo. As with many other pieces of research, people with male Anglo names were offered more interviews and received higher salary offers etc. When presented with the research, those who had been researched almost invariably refused to believe it, thus showing that there is also unconscious bias blindness.
Our brains are lazy, energy-suckers that desire to save power. One way they do this is via stereotypes, assumptions and suspicion of novelty. Back in caveman (caveperson) times, this was cool. Not so much nowadays.
Few would argue to your face that diversity is not the right thing to do but businesses don’t always take that tack. There is a strong business case that means it can be done without having to be a nice guy. (Note to self – find a more inclusive term than ‘guys’. I still struggle with my automatic informal noun for people when I’m in front of a group. I baulk at “folks”. Suggestions welcome).
A GE study in 2008 discovered that diverse teams delivered productivity growth of 21% compared with a productivity growth rate of 13% from a homogenous team. Diversity Inc found in a survey of 256 companies that the 50 most diverse companies outperformed the NASDAQ index by 28.2 %, Standard and Poor’s 500 index by 24.8% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 22.4%. Diversity is productive and profitable.
In our workshops, we had an activity where everyone lined up at a ‘starting line’. Everyone got a randomly selected card with a description of a person. For the activity, they would ‘be’ that person. (Not a roleplay, so don’t panic). I would read out a scenario and if that scenario was no problem for their person, they would take a step forward. A seemingly innocuous scenario like having a team meeting at the pub after work on a Friday evening gets only a quarter of the group stepping forward. Similar results occur for each of the four scenarios until we finish with a few people four steps ahead and the rest spread out and several people having taken no steps at all.
In debriefing, participants discovered that everyone had very diverse people on their cards with very different circumstances. Differences in language, gender, income, ability and so forth meant that for some the simple after work meeting was a hassle, inconvenience, extra expense or simply not viable. A missed team meeting by itself means little but they accumulate and maybe someone isn’t seen as a team player or worthy of promotion or a pay rise. It was a powerful and physical demonstration of a problem that opened some eyes. Few deliberately set out to discriminate against people who are different to them but not everyone stops and thinks about how their decisions might affect those who are not like them. It’s easier not to. Curse those lazy brains.
To counter this, we had our little model with its acronym: S.E.L.F. Spoiler alert – the S stands for “Stop and think”.
Early 90s rapper Vanilla Ice (possibly the least diverse name ever) had a line in his biggest hit, “Stop, collaborate and listen…”. Good advice. We think better generally when we slow down according to Nobel winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Rarely is our first thought our best thought. One group in one diversity programme made a poster that went up around the company with their own catchphrase that would fit nicely in a rap song one day, “The more variety, the better for society”.
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