Recent events on both sides of the Atlantic have challenged not only traditional polling methods but notions of identity, culture and political allegiance, which have huge implications for businesses of all sizes.
Why is diversity such an issue right now?
We have reached a tipping point. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have revealed seismic flaws within societies and a massive gap between governments and those they purport to represent. At the same time, we are in the midst of fundamental demographic and technological change that we can barely comprehend. More than ever we need to understand one another and create truly understanding communities that reflect and address one another’s needs and aspirations.
What are the key challenges for businesses?
One of the biggest challenges is around decision-making. We know that when it comes to making critical decisions there is tremendous value in having other minds involved, providing alternative perspectives.
Recruitment is another key area. Many business leaders will prefer likeability to competence when recruiting talent, but it is important to consider ‘self’ and ‘role’ separately, and realise that it is possible to stay true to oneself while fulfilling your role as something different. For example, there is no reason why a Brexit supporter can’t empathise with a passionate advocate of the EU. You should be able to separate the personal from the professional and focus on the real needs of your business. It’s all about empathy, and understanding that difference is good, not a threat.
Diversity also needs to be re-framed as a leadership issue. A truly diverse culture flows from enlightened management, so leaders can make themselves stronger and better in this area.
Entrepreneurship can often attract competitive individuals who adopt a more confrontational and even belligerent style of working. There is also an old mantra, ‘fake it till you make it.’ Many of us fall into the trap of feeling like we need to cultivate a persona that is at odds to our true selves, but it can actually be very empowering to be allowed to just be yourself and realise that it is be better to be so. This requires self-awareness.
So, should we be employing more women?
Not necessarily, it is not just about gender. For various complex sociological reasons, some women in business actually manifest typically male attributes and attitudes, which is not the answer. Successful businesses need to create an environment that is genuinely diverse in its character and outlook to challenge such stereotypical male values.
What are the answers then?
Businesses and start-ups need to look at systems and processes around recruitment, appraisal and reward. For example, leadership programmes that involve ‘unconscious bias training’ are very beneficial. Most of us are biased but we need to be made aware of it. This can be reduced through conscious and more self-aware leadership, and by ‘unconscious system adjustments’, or ‘nudges’.
One ‘nudge’ concerns recruitment. During most one-to-one scenarios, interviewers tend to be biased towards one particular individual. Most entrepreneurs are essentially discriminatory, because we choose people who fit in. Culturally homogenous teams may outperform diverse ones in the short term, but longer term they fail. So we need to recruit people who may not necessarily end up as our best friends, but will perform best. Recruitment processes should be fair and, for example, involve a mixed interview panel.
Internal appraisal and promotion is another key area. Again, panels need to be diverse in terms of gender and departments, while those on the panel should have mixed slates to interview. Consider nudges like independently ranking candidates on a ‘blind’ basis to avoid name association bias, and then coming together as a group afterwards so as to avoid group-think, can be very helpful.
But true inclusivity is a mindset. It is only through a conscious iteration and awareness of our need to be inclusive and tolerant that we can move on. It is about the encouragement and cultivation of a truly balanced and fair-minded corporate culture that permeates every level of activity, from recruitment to the most subtle aspects of interpersonal and professional relationships that shape and define its culture – both internally and externally.
What are the benefits?
When it comes to business performance, ‘sameness is dangerous’. Managerial failure is often due to bias and self-protectionism, which is a major factor in poor decision-making. Nokia and Kodak are examples of household names where a myopic management culture led to the demise of an entire corporate empire. If we can get beyond this and create an inclusive culture and environment in which everyone’s contribution is valued and appreciated then not only are we happier but also more productive.
By Stephen Frost, author of Inclusive Talent Management and former head of diversity and inclusion for the Olympic and Paralympic Games