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Workplace Diversity & Inclusion

Graham discusses improving diversity and inclusion within businesses. Business leaders often find this topic sensitive or challenging or may be scared of making a mistake, but legal compliance requires leaders to get this right. If you are looking for clarity on this important subject then this is a must-read.

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Welcome to this edition of The Coaching Conversation. Today, I'm going to tackle the difficult subject of diversity and inclusion. One thing to get absolutely straight up front is I am not an expert in diversity and inclusion (D&I). I am an executive coach. I meet a lot of people for whom this is a challenge. I own my own business and I am involved in managing other businesses as a leader, and therefore I recognise D&I is a challenge and I have been looking for help to guide me, help me, through what is a very difficult subject, and it is difficult and I need help because it's scary, it's important, and I really don't want to make a mistake, and I really don't want to offend anybody. It is super sensitive. We all know that this raises huge emotions in people - from people who complain, people who think that the world's too woke, to people who believe that they're just not being heard and they're being excluded from society.

What's more important for organisations and for the people within them, is their success and their legal compliance. It's going to be dependent on their ability to get this more right than they have done in the past. And it's confusing. I've described this as D&I diversity and inclusion. There are people who put an 'e' on it, so it's equality, diversity and inclusion, but sometimes they put the E in the middle. I have no idea what's right... I'm sticking with D&I.

When I was reflecting on this and when I was trying to work out the help that I needed, I wanted to try and write down what the challenge was that I was trying to tackle. The first one was I wanted to help people around me. In my organisation, clients get uncomfortable with the whole subject of D&I. I didn't want them to be scared, and I didn't want them to share the excessive sensitivity of the subject and then get stuck. Above all else, particularly for me, I wanted to make it simple.

A little while ago, I got really lucky. I watched a video by a chap called Shirzad Chamine. Shirzad runs an organisation called Positive Intelligence Incorporated from San Francisco, and he has a great talent for taking difficult, complicated subjects and simplifying them. I then shared that video with two or three people whose opinions I regard highly and got their feedback. Then, I started to get some clarity around this subject and how perhaps you can make some serious progress. As I say, Shirzad is a genius at sympathy and complexity, and a lot of what I'm going to share with you is really built around his simplification.

I also realise I'm not alone. I'm not the only person wrestling with this. Lots of people are on their own journey and they're making their own progress. There are things to share and things to learn along the way. I also realise that there is no single solution. What I go through with you today is not the answer. It's a contribution. It's a sharing of ideas and putting them with the rest of your tools to deal with this, and it'll help.

Above all else, I think actually getting started and committing to the journey is what really matters. And recognising that this is a journey for life. You will probably never finish. I don't even know what the finish line looks like. But as long as you're making progress and as long as you are genuinely committed to the journey, that's probably the best we can ask.

There is a place for formal policies. There is a place for formal procedures and formal training. Organisations do need to write down and do need to say out loud what they believe in, what their values are, what they'll accept, and what they won't accept. I'm not trying to override those or ignore them in any way, but I do also believe that in order to reach everybody in an organisation, whether it's in the boardroom or on the shop floor, simplification is critical. Common language and common understanding are really important as a foundation to make cultural change. If we can simplify it, we'll de-mystify it. We'll all be seeing the same thing and saying the same thing.

We should be able to make it less nerve-wracking and we should be able to increase people's confidence, and their ability to talk about the subject, which will of itself remove the fear. I think if we simplify it, we realise we're all in the same boat. D&I is about all of us, not some of us. When you simplify things, you by definition increase understanding. And for me, the simplification, certainly the work that Shirzad shared starts with understanding that we all have unconscious bias and we all are in advantaged or disadvantaged groups. These are the cornerstones of understanding the essence of D&I

So what's unconscious bias? Well, we all have unconscious biases and they come from the way we grew up and how life's treated us along the way. For example, I grew up in what was a Protestant Christian household. I do not pretend it was in any way evangelical, but it was certainly - until my teenage years - the only real insight I had into religion; I had no grasp of what Islam might have meant or what Buddhism might have meant, and how it differed or added to Christianity. I have a natural affinity, therefore, to Protestant Christianity. I grew up in a council house, in a working-class neighbourhood, and all the issues around working-class neighbourhoods I experienced. Then, I went and passed my 11 plus exam and went to another local state grammar school. I was one of five people in my year that came from my end of town. I went to the grammar school, which was at the other end of town, the posh end of town, and all those life experiences, the way we were treated by the teachers, the other pupils, I couldn't enjoy the things that they could enjoy because we just didn't have the money. I didn't go on school cruises. I didn't go on the school skiing holiday. We never had international holidays. There were whole life experiences that separated me from my schoolmates and that led to me having a view of people with money different to people who lived in my council estate.

Now as I've grown older and gone through life, things like that have changed, but the truth is my roots were there. I inherited and developed unconscious biases around my status in society. You can go further, you can give examples of how you immediately react to people you see in the street. Too fat, too thin, too tall, they look wealthy, they look poor. You can jump to all sorts of conclusions around unconscious bias and provided you realise that everybody's got them, no one's immune. It's just the way we are built. Then you can become much more aware of these biases and the way they make you think. And if you can reflect on your unconscious biases, whatever they may be and how they may change over time, you can realise that they can drive you towards the exclusion of other people or judgments of other people that are unhelpful.

If you can increase your awareness, you can do small things that are hugely valuable, only improving diversity and inclusion. You can use different vocabulary. Do you remember I said the posh end of town? Well, I don't have to say that - I can just say the other end of town. I can catch myself looking at people and thinking 'He's too fat. He's too thin, she's too tall, too short'. I can stop myself from jumping to conclusions. They would say that, wouldn't they? I can stop myself. I can accept that people have a different opinion to mine and I can let them have that opinion and I can listen to what they've got to say and learn more.

I can put myself in other people's shoes. Deliberately saying this is their perspective. That's why they think the way they do, it's why they see the world they do. And that can add to my ability to be more inclusive with them. I can just be less judgmental if I'm aware of my own conscious biases. I can take small steps that add up to a lot, and if a whole load of people in an organisation are making these small steps themselves, then the organisation is by definition going to be much more inclusive, and much less discriminatory.

Then there's the concept of advantaged groups and disadvantaged groups. Advantaged groups are usually the majority, and are usually privileged by being the majority. They're the norm. They're the way things happen in this society, in this organisation, in this club, and the people in that group are usually empowered to make the decisions. They're usually the ones in charge.

Disadvantaged groups are usually the minority. They're usually self-defined; I'm the minority because I'm not this. They are, by definition, not the norm, which means they tend to be outside, excluded, at a distance and not as involved. They're not involved in the decision-making, in the way that they might choose. And do you know what? This is a light bulb moment- everybody - you reading this - is in advantaged groups and disadvantaged groups at exactly the same time.

I'll give you my examples. I am in the advantaged group of having had a successful career, and a great education, and I've been successful in a financial context compared to most people. I'm also disadvantaged; I'm the wrong age to be starting my career. If I want to be a senior executive, I probably won't get the interviews that I would like to get. I'm disadvantaged in the context that I live in a certain part of the world, which isn't as well connected as the Southeast of England, and I can go on with these examples and what's happening to me all at the same time.

Advantage groups typically are very confident. We are in charge. We know what's going on. They are in the majority, they tend to exclude people that are not like them by definition. Therefore, they become insensitive to other people who are not like them and how they might see the world. They often become unaware that there is more than one way of seeing the world. By definition, that behaviour becomes self-reinforcing. If that's the way things get done around here, that's the way things do get done around here. And they can be very closed, they can be very forbidding for people who don't fit the mould.

On the other hand, disadvantaged groups have their own babies too. They can often be very nervous, very shy, and very reticent. They can feel victimised. Feel that whatever happens, they're never going to win. They definitely feel excluded. I'm not part of that. They never listen to a word I say. They feel ignored and all that adds up to a level of hypersensitivity that makes them react to things that perhaps aren't meant the way they appear to be. They can live a life of feeling offended. Again, this is self-reinforcing; And by definition, again, because they can be self-determining, they can be exclusive. We are like this. We are not like that. So if you're not like us, you can't join.

So how do you close the gaps between advantaged groups and disadvantaged groups? Well, I've got lucky again. I showed this video to a friend of mine who runs a large charity, and she shared her definition of success in diversity and inclusivity; We just have to be more welcoming as an organisation.

We have to be more welcoming, and you know what? That is a fabulous word because it means so much. It means when hiring people, whether it's candidates or selection criteria, interviewing, or when you are looking for new ideas make sure everybody in the organisation gets a say, not just the normal old few or the people who think as you do. When you are making decisions, think about and recognise the impact on everybody in the organisation, including customers and suppliers, but everybody in the organisation, not just the majority. In simple terms, as an organisation and as individuals in the organisation, if you are more welcoming, you are by definition making yourself more open; it defines success in D&I so nicely for me.

So how do we close these gaps? If you're an advantaged group, recognise that you are in an advantaged group. Tell yourself how fortunate you are. Try and understand, empathise with the other groups, and see their perspective. When you are communicating with these other groups or the rest of the organisation, try to use vocabulary that they'll warm to, that shows that you've listened to what they've said or you understand their perspective, but to still get them involved, actively, proactively seek their opinion. And then when you are making the decision, concentrate on the things that really matter. Don't get sucked into the small stuff that reinforces bad behaviours or sends unnecessary messages. Just focus on the big stuff, the stuff that matters, and then make sure the whole organisation understood what's been decided and is working together, and is acting together as a team.

If you're in a disadvantaged group. Try not to see yourself as a victim. That doesn't really serve anybody. That doesn't change the fact that you might not have the same advantages as the advantaged group, but dwelling on it doesn't really get you anywhere. See the perspective from the advantaged group or the other groups. Try to seek common ground. Understand where actually you're not really so far. And get engaged. Push yourself forward. Be involved in the discussion and find a common purpose. Find where you are all together in mindset and identify what really matters and leave behind the stuff, the triviality, that just forces difference and act together on this common purpose.

So, one take on D&I is to do this - Simplify the complex. Help people realise that we all have unconscious biases. We all are advantaged and disadvantaged. And knowing this, we can all be more welcoming. And if we are more welcoming. We've started on this journey, this journey of a lifetime.

Thanks much. See you again soon.


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