Breaking barriers to diversity in the workplace

Oct 24, 2019 | Diversity

In the autumn issue of The Student Employer Christine Armstrong, Author of The Mother of All Jobs, considers diversity and inclusion and the uphill struggle to change.

Who else is bored to tears of hearing business talks about flexible work, more senior women, greater BAME representation and loads of other deeply sensible things that never seem to quite happen in reality?

There are days when I feel like I’ve been stuck in the same conversation since I graduated, and I’m so old I remember the day email was installed on my computer at work. Just the other day a board member of a big consultancy told me, “we said we’d have 20% women at senior levels by 2020. Not only is that a pathetic target but we won’t even hit it!”

These are changes, let’s remember, that are broadly seen as good, sensible and mainstream. They have evidence to support that they are beneficial to businesses and have many vocal supporters. Yet in so many cases, the numbers aren’t moving. In others, including four out of ten pay gap reports, they are going backwards.

This isn’t unusual; most studies still show a 60-70% failure rate for organisational change projects — a statistic that has stayed pretty constant from the 1970s. This is in spite of many management gurus setting out frameworks and checklists to ensure success. I have become fascinated with studying why this is.

Barriers to change

Two things are apparent in these diversity and inclusion initiatives. One is that the combination of legal changes, making the business case, plus a range of new policies (like flexible working policies, blind recruitment, coaching and mentoring and so on) is not enough. The other is that those wanting change almost always underestimate the size and power of the resistance to their proposals. Ironically, given their alignment with #MeToo, they hope that silence might be consent. Or at least benign acceptance.

It isn’t. For every case that is made, using language from American politics, there is a ‘base’ that supports it, a ‘swing’ who might support it if they knew how it might benefit them or the organisation and a ‘reach’ who are instinctively opposed to the change.

The other thing politicians know well is that humans make decisions for emotional reasons and then use facts to justify their choice. This is important because these are emotional issues. I have, for example, interviewed white men who speak in favour of equality generally (often citing challenges they see in their own female partners or family members experiencing) but are afraid of reduced chances of promotion because women and BAME employees will be favoured over them. Such men usually won’t vocalise these fears, preferring to say nothing to avoid being called a racist, sexist dinosaur.

This means that the reach group on these issues often isn’t obvious. It doesn’t shout or campaign, its power is simply in ignoring the issues and then passive resistance to the change when introduced. For example, accepting the new flexible working policy without comment but scheduling team meetings at 5pm every day or contacting people constantly while they are supposed to be not working. The teams around them, who may be actively supportive if engaged, will learn to keep their heads down.

Space to talk

Ignoring the reach and the swings groups though is a massive missed opportunity. My experience is that, given the right setting, people do want to talk about their concerns. Thoughtful questions and the space to talk can reveal a huge amount about what’s on their minds and what might persuade them. That man above who is afraid may also confide that he too would like to leave work early sometimes but that he thinks the policy will only apply to women. Discovering he too could benefit may move him, or at least reduce his opposition.

Smart teams understand the resistance and work with their potential supporters, the swing. Activating those who weren’t sure if being involved was a good idea or not. Particularly seeking those who are most influential with others and encouraging them to participate in the change, try new ideas and talk about them.

Implementing change

What should those driving new ways of working in business take from this? The lessons come from politics. Don’t ignore or underestimate those who oppose you. Take the time to understand them and know how to address their concerns. Don’t assume they are bad because they disagree with you, they may be afraid, they may have had a difficult experience, they may not fully understand. Appeal through emotion and use evidence to support your case.

At the risk of alienating every reader in the last few lines, remember Brexit: ‘Remain’ thought that rational arguments and facts about the past would win the vote, Boris Johnson was more influential than a raft of evidence-citing experts and ‘Leave’ really understood emotional motivations. Now that the battle lines are so entrenched, it’s hard to persuade anyone to agree to any sort of compromise or way forward. And on Brexit, most people will share their views. In your organisation many will not.

This is an article from the autumn issue of The Student Employer.

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