Diversity & Inclusion – an endless journey

Most organisations today recognise the need for Diversity and Inclusion, particularly in the area of gender.Consequently many of them have set up D&I cells to ensure that it receives the necessary attention. Part of this awareness has become necessary due to external pressure (social/legal requirements, diktats from the corporate office etc.)  and part of it stems from a genuine appreciation of the benefits of D&I. However,  most organisations  find it difficult to translate this appreciation into action. The D&I agenda remains primarily a baby of the D&I cell and is rarely owned up by the rest of the organisation. Even when there is a strong commitment to it at the leadership level, it is not very easy to percolate it down.  l believe, this is so, because most of the present endeavours in this area are inadequate to deal with the real roadblocks. In my experience and understanding there are five major roadblocks to D&I and unless they are understood, appreciated and engaged with, it will be very difficult to pursue D&I in a meaningful way. These roadblocks are as follows-

  1. Glib Acceptance

A glib acceptance of D&I has done more harm than good. It has become “politically incorrect” to voice any doubts or reservations about D&I. The person who does so, runs the risk of being regarded as backward, rigid and not progressive. Hence most people find it prudent to keep their doubts and reservations to themselves and just make the “right noises”. The doubts and reservations are mostly discharged in the galleries and rarely expressed in open formal forums except through indirect passive resistance. Those who “dare “to voice their opposition are generally regarded as “problematic” and the anchors of D&I endeavour either “ignore” them or try to “manage” them.It is rarely recognised that they are in fact expressing “on behalf of” the larger community and can be extremely valuable resources, provided their doubts and concerns are acknowledged and addressed rather than being dismissed as “regressive”

I recall once a colleague and I were working with an organisation, wherein we were told that a particular individual was the major bottleneck in the pursuit of D&I agenda. As we worked with the person, we found that he was one of the few people in the system who had a clear and cogent understanding of what D&I entailed. Once his doubts and reservations were engaged with, he became one of the most committed supporters of the D&I agenda.

Assimilation of anything which is accepted without adequate challenge can only be “skin deep” and hence it is not surprising that while a lot of lip service is paid to D&I, it is rarely pursued with the seriousness that it deserves. Thus anchors of D&I agenda, need to particularly guard against the sabotage which comes under the garb of “glib acceptance”

2. Urgent over Important

Managers have to constantly walk the tight rope between that which is urgent and that which is important. They  can scarcely ignore either. However the increasing emphasis on “quarter to quarter” deliverables, short term career goals, unwillingness to make long term commitments have tilted the scale significantly on side of the “urgent”.By its very nature the D&I agenda falls in the category of “important” and not “urgent”. It has no bearing on the immediate quarterly results but is crucial for the long term health, viability and success of the organisation. Thus often, the managers are required to transcend their “urgency preoccupations” in order to pursue D&I agenda. It is most clearly visible in situations of recruitment and placement, where the primary concern is to get someone who is immediately available and usable. In such a scenario D&I will necessarily be seen as an impediment.

Most organisations deal with this tension by creating a greater sense of urgency around the D&I agenda. This is done through mechanisms such as setting specific diversity targets, monitoring progress and sometimes making them an integral part of performance appraisal. While this helps in creating some urgency around D&I agenda, it also has a huge backlash of resentment. The larger issues of organisation policies  and culture which result in “urgent” taking precedence over “important”remain unexamined. In such a scenario,  pursuit of D&I agenda becomes a compulsion rather than an act of conviction and commitment.

3. Comfort with Similarity

While dealing with some one who is different from ourselves may be potentially exciting and beneficial, it requires us to move out of our comfort zone. Engaging with people who are “our own kind” is a lot easier. The discomfort in dealing with some one who does not belong to our reference group (in terms of gender, class, ethnic group, attitudes, values&beliefs, etc.) is generally dealt with either through-

  • Accentuating the difference and developing stereotypes(e.g. North Indians are brash, Women are emotional, social class equals sophistication etc.) OR
  • Becoming insensitive to the difference (e.g.what is true for me is also true for the other,  men and women are just the same, social background/ethnicity has no bearing on the individual,  etc)
  • Often, both these work hand in hand. This is most clearly visible in case of Gender relations. On one hand, women are resented for behaving in ways which are against the gender stereotypes (e.g. being aggressive, demanding, ambitious etc.) On the other hand it is expected that they would assert, network and work late hours just like their male colleagues.

Many organisations try to address these issues through training and development interventions for both men and women. However, most of these interventions rarely go beyond emphasising the need to transcend biases and prejudices inherited from a patriarchal social structure. The underlying fears, anxieties, excitements and discomforts of engaging with differences are rarely acknowledged let alone being addressed.

4.   Over crystallised notions  of Effectiveness

At a collective level, the discomfort of dealing with differences is managed through an over crystallised notion of an effective member/manager/leader. While there are obvious differences across functions, roles and levels; the broad pictures have a high degree of commonality. This broad picture is that of a suave, articulate,ambitious, self-assured person who is governed by objective rationality and who can maintain smooth interfaces in his/her dealings with others. People who don’t fit the mould (i.e. eccentric, socially awkward, introverted, sentimental, temperamental and volatile people) can at best be tolerated but are unlikely to go very far unless of course they are exceptionally gifted.

It is easy to see that this picture of effectiveness is heavily loaded in favour of people of a certain background. The upper middle-class, english educated, upper caste, urban male has a clear advantage over others. Even when the person concerned comes from a different background, he/she is socialised into this mould. Today many BPO’s in Bengaluru are having to recruit from small towns, but part of their induction includes converting them into Bangaloreans. Inclusion of more women in organisations has not led to any significant enhancement of femininity, on the contrary it has led to masculinisation of women.

Thus the assumption that greater representation of people from varying backgrounds will lead to diversity may not be totally valid. On the contrary, it is more likely to lead to converting a diverse set of people into an identical mould. Pursuit of D&I agenda will require going beyond the obvious tangible factors like gender, race, ethnicity etc. and paying attention to the frozen pictures of managerial effectiveness that we carry.

5. Management Education

Strange as it may seem, the present frames of management education (both formal and informal) are not particularly conducive to D&I. These frame are designed for, and work well when applied to people who are more or less alike. In such scenarios what one needs are a set of principles which can be applied in a fair, rational and objective manner across the board. One only needs to ensure consistency and uniform application of these principles. Not surprisingly “firm and fair” has been a favourite expression of many managers.

Managing a diverse set of people is a different ball game. What works well in case of one person may be disastrous in case of another. Contextual sensitivity is crucial in handling diversity and for this managers need to move out of their comfort zone of consistency and and rely on their subjective wisdom. The present approaches in management education lay considerable emphasis on development of analytical skills and data based decision making. They do precious little to enhance the sensing, intuitive abilities and subjective wisdom which play a crucial role in dealing with a diverse set of people.

It is therefore not surprising that often the professionally educated managers have very little understanding of what D&I entails. They tend to hold a  naive belief that D&I  is simply a matter of being sufficiently “broad-minded” and “sincere” to treat people equitably irrespective of their class, race, gender and ethnic background. Thus while they demonstrate high degree of comfort in dealing with people of “diverse backgrounds”, they are completely at a loss when they have to deal with people who are not “their type” i.e. people who do not share their way of looking at things and/or people whose values,beliefs and priorities are different than their own .

In the ultimate analysis it is this naive belief (that D&I is simply a matter of being broad minded and equitable)  which is the biggest obstacle in the pursuit of D&I agenda. The reality is a lot more complex than that. D&I is a quality of individual and collective mind which recognises the toxicity inherent in excessive uniformity. It entails willingness to go beyond one’s comfort zone. It requires the ability to co-hold urgent with important, it entails respecting the “difference” between ourselves and the other without stereotyping, it requires re-examination of some of our frozen frames of effectiveness, but above all it requires us to invest in our “contextual- sensitivity” and subjective wisdom” rather than relying on “fixed rules” which can be applied uniformly and consistently.

The large complex organisations of today need general principles and rules which can be applied across the board irrespective of the context. To that extent, a certain degree of hegemony is inevitable. The difficulty arises when this hegemony becomes so oppressive that it leaves no space for individual sensing, subjectivity, discretion and wisdom. The co-holding of universal objective principles with contextual subjective wisdom is too large an issue to be addressed here. For the limited purpose of this piece, we only need to appreciate that meaningful engagement with D&I agenda, necessarily entails stepping out of the hegemony of the current management thinking.

In this sense, D&I is a never ending journey. If we do not understand the nature of this journey and the road blocks inherent in it, we run the risk of replacing one type of hegemony with another.