We love your difference – just please fit in!

On International Women’s Day it seems right to reflect on this year’s theme of ‘better the balance, better the world’ and ponder this in the light of the broader issue of diversity (and the lack of it in our workplaces, our public institutions, the media – I could go on!).

(Very) slowly, institutions are moving towards an awareness of the importance of diversity – heads of D&I are being appointed, unconscious bias training programmes abound whilst the legislative stick that enforced gender pay gap reporting is bringing the conversation into the boardroom and society at large. These are all important steps and any progress made towards creating a fairer, more equal society should be celebrated – but it would be premature to crack open the champagne or don our party hats quite yet.

Diversity is about recognising and valuing difference; it’s about having a varied range of perspectives from a varied range of people. It’s about embracing the unique range of experiences, outlooks, points of view, talents and insights that are created from who we are, be that through gender, race, neurological ‘wiring’, social background, sexual orientation, education – I could go on! It’s what makes being human so wonderful; it brings with it a richness and a depth and breadth to our human experience that has given birth to a wealth of riches – be that across technology, the arts, medicine, science – that we all enjoy today.

But we know that this difference, this sense of ‘otherness’, is also what makes embracing diversity really hard. You just have to reflect on your own experience, both professionally and personally, to know that we generally feel much more comfortable and more at ease with people ‘just like us’: we share the same social cues and shortcuts. (We go on holiday – often to similar locations, we enjoy the same films, books, programmes on TV, we have similar hobbies and interests.) The further we move away from our ‘comfort zone’, the more ‘ill at ease’ we become. And, as developments in neuroscience and psychology highlight, the more ‘ill at ease’ we feel, the less creative, collaborative and open to risk taking we become: we want to ‘play it safe’ or worse still hide (or leave). Research from organisations like Stonewall or this latest survey from the publishing industry confirms that when we experience ‘otherness’ in the workplace and a sense of being ‘different’ we stop bringing our whole selves to work or suffer from feeling ‘the odd one out’. In fact, research shows that 62% of people feel they have to bend themselves into a different shape to be able to ‘fit in at work’. (And that doesn’t just apply to women or minority groups. In a study, even 45% of white heterosexual men felt the same!) And neuroscience shows that feeling socially excluded has the same impact as physical pain – it hurts!

So how do we ‘better the balance’ across all diverse groups to ensure that the very skills and behaviours organisations need to thrive and prosper are realised to their full potential? How do we build organisational cultures that mean that we don’t bend ourselves out of shape (just think of all the energy we waste doing this!)? How do we build psychologically safe environments where everyone feels able to share their views, challenge prevailing orthodoxies and mine for conflict in a healthy and productive way? If most of us are already ‘faking it’ to fit in, then creating more diverse workforces and adding more ‘difference’ isn’t necessarily going to change anything. Yes, it might help tick some diversity tick boxes, but for how long and to what affect?

The conversation about diversity and inclusion needs to balance out. Attracting and recruiting diverse talent to your organisations is one positive step for sure, but if you are to truly realise the potential that this brings and ensure a sense of belonging then organisations need to address their cultures at the same time – and invest as much working on what it means to be inclusive as diverse. (And there is a growing body of evidence that shows that businesses with an inclusive environment perform better than those that don’t!)

So, what does being an inclusive organisation mean? How do we ensure, as we create more diverse workforces, that those very same organisations are ‘diverse talent’ ready? Otherwise we may find ourselves facing a clash of cultures – as leaders are challenged in their expectations of ‘how their people should behave’, as existing rituals and routines are debunked and exploded and as this energised new talent leave more and more of themselves behind at the office door – which doesn’t help anybody, the organisation, their people or the individual.

Organisations need this multiplicity of perspectives if they are to flourish and thrive. Organisations need this diversity if they are to reflect the customers they serve. Organisations need to be diverse if they are to take seriously their role as part of wider society and the imperative to operate in a socially responsible and fair way.

So, as we reflect on ‘better the balance, better the world’ perhaps we should reflect on what we need to do now to adapt our organisations and our institutions to make them ready for the diversity of perspective society so critically needs.

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itsSamActually

Giving it a go!

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