Change and its role in Diversity and Inclusion

16th April 2019

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has, at last, garnered the attention of those that occupy the executive canteen, but all isn’t as it should be. When approached on the subject of D&I and their views on the need to expand the focus, the response typically bases itself on their perception that ‘they’re fine’ and its for others to change. If this was reality, then we would not be having this or other conversations. So, what’s still going wrong?

Change and its role in Diversity and Inclusion

It’s really a question with two aspects to the answer. The first aspect relates to the levels of discomfort we face when challenged about our views. We tend to assume that it’s not us and it’s a problem for others. This is, in fact, a natural response as we don’t like to believe that we have internalised issues or limitations and we get defensive when that status is challenged. It’s not that as individuals we all hold bigoted views (although there are those that do), its more based around our inner awareness of our tendency towards unconscious bias. We tend to feel more comfortable around others who share the same education, religious or political views, support the same soccer teams or even just of the same gender. Those comfort zones lead to unintentional or ‘unconscious’ bias towards those of a similar group. That ultimately leads to inclusion and diversity issues within both our lives and in our workplaces.

A great example of the best of intents yet weakest of outcomes was seen in 2015 when Leslie Miley, the only black Twitter executive at the time, resigned over the poor response by the organisation to the diversity issue. Twitter had made some positive statements on its goal of being seen as an advocate of black and Hispanic recruitment with new policies, posters, campaigns and other positive actions. So why did Leslie Miley resign from Twitter in protest at the lack of progress? His concerns revolved around the recruitment practices and indeed the pipeline with the internal staffing statistics showing that the black and Hispanic community made up over 30% of the userbase yet only 6% of the workforce and no management or leadership presence. The hiring policies and selection criteria ultimately placed too much emphasis on educational background, qualifications, locations and so forth. This ultimately weighted the selection process in favour of the middle-class white candidates. It was unintentional, yet a supposed ‘advocate’ of D&I had a major issue and once the press picked up on the story, a major PR issue.

The second aspect expands upon the unconscious bias issues and focuses on our reluctance to change our surroundings, expectations or goals unless we see an obvious personal advantage.

Change brings with it a fear of the unknown, without enough detail we can develop trust issues, fear over the impact of change in the future as change takes hold. Ultimately, we hold a fear for our own future and wellbeing in the face of change that is seen to be imposed. When we challenge individuals either directly or indirectly over their stance on D&I unless we are careful we can be seen to be indirectly calling people out as bigots, sexist, or racist. Without deliberate intention, we can insult others and create enough hostility to engender active resistance. Even if we hold certain views we don’t appreciate being challenged directly and especially not in public. Better to present it as a challenge and ask for help.

There are undoubtedly active resistors to change brought about by cultural and religious views when it comes to LGBTI inclusion. Those that hold evangelical or even extremist views may consider what’s happening to be a ‘sin’ or ‘immoral’ and a direct challenge to their understanding of life and the comfort the workplace offers them. Having to work with an openly gay colleague for example, may result in open hostility or active resistance. It’s important to understand where and when this resistance to change is taking place and act accordingly. Those changes may be as wide-ranging as educational programs, redeployment or, in the worst-case scenario, possible dismissal.

D&I and its implementation are a dynamic in the change in an organisations culture and should be approached in an appropriate manner. It’s important to communicate not only the what and when, but also the why’s. Change in an organisation perceived to be outwardly successful, is particularly challenging as questions will be asked as to why it is needed, where are the benefits, we’re too busy, we don’t have enough staff, we already do this, we’re perfect/ fine as we are and so on. Why do we get these reactions? It’s in no small part back to individual fear of change.

When looking at your D&I processes and changes it’s critical to let the incumbent staff know that change is positive, it doesn’t mean that only minorities will be hired or promoted and that there are real benefits to change at the cultural, operational and even the financial levels. Don’t assume that staff ‘get it’ and don’t ignore the influences of organisational, team and individual ‘comfort zones’. Those zones need to be moved and/ or widened, this shouldn’t be avoided but change needs to be undertaken in an empathetic and clear manner.

For D&I to succeed in any organisation it must be treated as organisational and cultural change and not just as a set of policies, procedures and posters. Yes, expect results, even some early ones but remember that change is not a quick process and cultural change is measured in quarters and years rather than weeks and months. Be practical and sell it as a company-wide challenge and not a problem, encourage others to take the lead on initiatives, break down the barriers by inviting what might be perceived as minority groups into the organisation to share their stories, challenges and to show that they’re just like us. Finally, be willing to change your own views as you go on the journey yourself. Listen, look and adapt your viewpoints and approaches, enjoy the ride, the end-point is fascinating and enlightening.