Our Italian partners have invited me to present a keynote speech to their clients, and I’m very excited about the topic – diversity in leadership development. Less excited about apologising for my poor Italian – but thank goodness they are gracious people.
Excited because this is an area I’m passionate about, and because presenting to a foreign audience means you have to get your arguments in line – and clear. And it’s an area that continues to be a puzzle to people: there’s a willingness for greater diversity at leadership level, but there’s a glaring ‘say/do’ gap.
What we say we want is a cohort of diverse leaders. In the words of one client “anyone who can deliver; is talented; is skilled; is a team-player and knows how to lead, coach and manage others”.
But at senior levels in organisations we overwhelmingly have older white men. Now please; trust me when I say that I’m not anti-talented white men in leadership. It’s just that when there are more men called John on British Boards than there are women, you know you’ve got a problem.
And you probably don’t need me to rehearse the business benefits: better results; higher engagement levels; lower staff turnover and absenteeism where you have balanced boards. You know the arguments. It’s also vital for your reputation that your leaders and spokespeople reflect the diversity of your customers, service users and their families.
If like me you coach women and minorities to present well at interview, you’ve probably heard the “not quite good enough on the day” argument given to outstanding candidates who lost out to those white men.
There’s an upside-down logic going on. We say we want ‘talent and skill’ yet we see – and refuse to hire for – difference. Whether that’s gender, race, culture, or social class.
I call this ‘deep diversity’. To get the best people in leadership positions, we need to go beyond the superficial and dig deeper. This isn’t to blame people for the state of today’s leadership teams. It’s just that it’s time to move on and act positively for more diversity.
So, what’s happening? What’s going on?
The problem starts in our brains with narrow thinking. Our primitive (reptilian) brain is programmed to look for safety – which looks like “People Like Me”. It’s called pattern matching. And it’s time to outsmart our primitive brain behaviours. It shows up in individual and collective bias; it can be both conscious and unconscious. But it’s time to stop.
How do you teach 72 different types of bias?
This isn’t positive discrimination or affirmative action. It’s just doing what’s right. I’ve been following the ‘unconscious bias’ research for several years now. And like fellow colleagues in this field, the list was getting too big.
Adjust your brain’s behaviours in four simple steps:
- Outsmart your brain by accepting the need to consciously shift expectations. You can do this individually, or systematically for groups, teams and departments.
- Practice noticing; be aware of the biases that crop up every day.
- Practice reflective learning: when you catch your brain indulging in bias, write it down, then forgive yourself – because we all do it.
- Act positively towards diversity: through awareness, training and hiring activities.
Then promote or hire for talent; for attitude; for potential; for values; and for diversity. Let’s really take steps to get the best people in the role. There’s a number of things that organisations already do that work:
We can achieve a balance between hiring (or promoting) for attitude and behaviours, not solely on past competence or skills. We can have a broader interpretation of what “relevant skills” means:
- Those life-skills that women bring when juggling budgets in growing families really help when thrift is vital in the workplace.
- Or juggling the commitments of being a working wife, mother and daughter in law while holding down a senior technical, management or leadership role.
‘Blind hiring’ is on the increase
Just take out any distinguishing features from applications that may provoke bias: such as personal or university names; anything that indicates social class or confers status on a feature irrelevant to the role. And let’s bring back the promotion board: so that, where possible, organisations set standards and promote on position-readiness, not putting unnecessary hurdles in peoples’ way.
You’re probably doing a lot of this already. So if you’re ticking off each of these points and saying “Yep. We do that” congratulations!
And if you think your organisation could use a nudge in this direction, get in touch. We offer awareness workshops and short courses on ways to get the best people – and get the best out of people – regardless of their gender, culture or background. Whether it’s increasing diversity, improving emotional intelligence, or outsmarting our brains, we can help.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.