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How businesses can successfully manage diversity

28 Jul 2021 By Sope Agbelusi

Sope Agbelusi explains how employers can move beyond just filling quotas and foster a truly inclusive, psychologically safe workplace

After Black Lives Matter protests erupted globally following the tragic death of George Floyd, many organisations found themselves having uncomfortable conversations in the wake of calls for diversity and inclusion to be much more than baseless claims. 

What seemed to become apparent was that businesses that focused solely on filling diversity and inclusion quotas were the same businesses that had won diversity awards year in, year out, but had made little effort to change their culture. Instead, the focus was purely on hiring a diverse staff from a numbers perspective, but this failed to cultivate a truly inclusive, psychologically safe environment. 

Inclusion requires time, effort, money, but more importantly, it requires people acknowledging the fact that the current culture in the said organisation is not set up for staff to thrive and this is a problem that a lot of leaders struggle to acknowledge. 

Without addressing systemic issues, hiring to fill quotas treats the symptoms, but not the problem. Research into non-governmental organisations (NGOs) found that despite women making up 70 per cent of staff in NGOs, only 30-35 per cent reach the top of their organisation.  

An example of why simply filling the quota of diverse hires is not enough can be seen with the Rooney Rule, which was introduced by the NFL in 2003 and states that clubs must interview at least one ethnic candidate for each head coach and general manager vacancy. However, 17 years after the Rooney Rule came into effect, the number of coaches from ethnic backgrounds across the NFL is virtually the same as it was in 2003 because the attitude of the club owners has not changed and racial stacking still exists in the NFL.

The term ‘glass cliff’ was coined in 2005 by Michelle Ryan alongside her colleague Alex Haslam after an investigation found that women and people from ethnic backgrounds were promoted into leadership positions at a time of crisis, or put into positions in new and experimental ventures. In other words, on the outside looking in, it appeared as if promotions were happening and inclusive environments were being established but the reality was that those diverse hires were being set up to fail. 

People were put into environments where nothing had existed before and therefore they had to create it, or they were promoted in times of crisis within that organisation. So if things didn't work out, the organisation could easily blame the woman or person from an ethnic background and reinforce previous stereotypes. 

"Throwing women and ethnic and racial minorities into senior leadership roles where there isn't a culture of diversity, where there isn't policies and practices in place that address issues of discrimination, sexism, harassment, racial harassment, etc., that creates its own crisis," explains Ryan.

Meeting the set quota gives the impression of change to the external world but internally everything stays the same. This is why authentic leadership is a key component to creating change as traditional leadership models do not work within modern workforces of millennials and generation Z, who value purpose and meaning over money. 

Leadership on the frontline

A study by Accenture found that 68 per cent of senior leaders feel their company is inclusive, but only 36 per cent of rank-and-file employees feel the same way. The research revealed that not only are leaders disconnected from what is going on in their organisation with the proportion of employees who do not feel they are welcome at work and can contribute fully and thrive, it is 10 times higher than leaders believe. That a lack of authentic leadership translates to a $1.05tn loss because companies aren't inclusive.

Authentic leaders are those who model their behaviours through actions and not words; they understand that to be able to reap the benefits of an inclusive culture, ie. innovation, higher productivity and increased profits, leaders need to put their employees first and develop relationships based on trust, honesty, transparency and vulnerability. 

Authentic leaders understand the difference between equality and equity (equality means giving everyone the exact same resources; equity means distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients) and therefore put the necessary resources into place instead of hiding behind phrases such as “I don’t see colour”.

Self-awareness is the starting point of authentic leadership, as before you can lead others you first need to be able to lead yourself. It’s important to spend time working to help leaders understand who they are, their values, strengths and weaknesses and how they show up in the world to other people. 

A deep level of self-awareness is required to help leaders when dealing with uncomfortable issues such as race. To achieve authenticity in leadership, there must be an ability to speak truth to power as opposed to hiding behind excuses, performative measures or black squares.

Relationships that make a difference

The next step to become an authentic leader is relationship building: creating a culture of psychological safety – where people, regardless of their gender, background, social status, ethnicity or age, feel they belong – only happens by creating an environment that is open and honest, which is built on trust, transparency and respect. 

Communication is pivotal in relationship building and leaders need to learn how to listen to learn instead of listening to fix. Listening to learn invites people into a conversation where they are seen and heard and this makes employees feel they are valued, their voice matters and that they belong.

Without authentic leadership, employees do not feel safe to talk about race at work, which was evidenced in 2020 after the death of George Floyd. Despite repeated claims from leaders across sectors stating they were listening, previous actions did not support testimonies from employees and showcased a lack of authenticity.

Authentic leadership is not easy and for a lot of leaders, it involves unlearning old behaviours and relearning new ones. However, if a leader truly desires to create a culture where people are confident to take risks, be innovative, and bold in their ideas, it’s imperative to lead from the front. It is also acknowledging and accepting that you are not going to get this right all the time – you are going to stumble, but recognise that stumbling is part of the journey and it connects you as a leader to your team. Being able to share mistakes with employees will break down walls and build bridges, as it removes the ‘god-like complex’ and demonstrates the willingness to get things wrong in the short term for a long-term gain.

When the above happens alongside genuine hires that happen to fill quotas, that is when real change happens, as employees come into environments that are set up for them to thrive and succeed. 

Sope Agbelusi is founder of Mindset Shift

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