D&I must step out of its own comfort zone

D&I is stuck in routine, generic strategies and a copy-and-paste mentality. This analysis shows how a lack of relevance to the business and too much regulation is limiting the scope and impact of Diversity. A new business focus can bring back the change into D&I and unleash intrinsic energy.

Who are We? Part 2: Companies and business organisations

Companies strive to define themselves – from the inside out – through shared values, vision and mission. In addition, organisational relationships with stakeholders co-create identity – from the outside in. In both contexts, the question is whether D&I forms part of organisational identity. Recently, we have not seen many examples where Diversity and/or Inclusion are explicit elements. Rather, it has become a widespread ambition to weave D&I into the fabric of the company or for D&I to become part of the DNA. With all good intentions, this implies that we should admit: it is not enough. For when D&I is everybody’s responsibility it is also no-one’s – and we have seen a lot of this phenomenon. Also, the mere integration or embedding keeps D&I invisible (or at least hard to see) and hence fluffy. This provides room for hard KPIs to dominate the scene and drive some wrong behaviours.

D&I must become relevant and tangible

There are two strong ways of positioning D&I as part of the Who-are-We as business organisations.

  • Analyse the concrete areas, where D&I can contribute directly to the business agenda and develop strategies and operational action plans that will deliver against the defined contributions. This is relatively easy when growth, effectiveness, complexity, globality, change etc. are key. As result, D&I will be much more relevant.
  • Making sure every manager understands the value creation process of D&I as well as the complexity and the unwanted effects of different forms of Unconscious Biases – beyond optical illusions, blind spots and short cuts they discover in tests. On this basis, they can develop their own personal agenda to mitigate unwanted effects and focus on creating value from differences. This will path their individual, authentic and hence successful and sustainable way to inclusive leadership and make D&I tangible.

D&I Routine and fatigue: Same same, not different enough

One reason why D&I has not been seen as a strong element of the strategic agenda lies in the routine that was created over twenty years of good practice. Many great initiatives were developed and they are repeated, for example every year. In addition, new regulation has introduced more routines and hence quite some fatigue. Although it may seem less obvious, routine and fatigue were increased by a remarkable array of good practices that are shared in the D&I community. Copying and pasting programmes and tools has become common even though it often leads to a trial and error approach rather than strategic decision taking. Another reason for the lack of D&I momentum is the existence of too many generic strategies with workforce – workplace – marketplace or attract – develop – retain templates.

Bring back the change into D&I in order to think big

Where and when did we lose the change element in the first place? One not so obvious reason emerges when comparing U.S. and European contexts and approaches. In both regions, we find reasons for a lack of change momentum. In the US, there is a certain reluctance to address deeper-rooted D&I issues like systemic, structural or systematic biases in processes or cultures, for this could have negative legal implications. Instead, concepts like micro-inequities and unconscious bias proclaim that the ‘issue’ is rather limited. In Europe, addressing fundamental bias would be possible, but it is not wanted. Company networks and public platforms today communicate that in D&I everything is fine or well underway. While companies run dedicated programmes for some remaining issues or special needs, there is little inclination to question the dominating approaches and cultures.

Intrinsic initiative on D&I could avoid political pressure

In the light of the mentioned attitudes, it is understandable, although we do not support it, that Politics continue to force companies to look into persisting gaps – including women on boards, gender pay gap, return policies etc. However, imposing new or additional legal frameworks does not increase the change energy. Instead, it has the adverse effect of limiting the scope of corporate action to checking boxes and to a focus on meeting requirements rather than on what could be done pro-actively. Companies should not wait for politics to mandate D&I monitoring or target-setting exercises. They have an intrinsic interest in an ongoing improvement of processes, including their consistent application, and in high-performing, inclusive cultures. This should be the source for the change energy needed at this time.

Charity has its limits – Business has none

A comprehensive business case allows to scope out D&I in a holistic way. Over the past couple of years, however, political frameworks and CSR had become stronger, which may well have weakened or limited the impact of D&I. This can be seen from the following comparison:

  • If we do D&I because we are legally required to – we will do as much as we have to. Period.
  • If we do D&I because it’s a corporate responsibility – we will do as much as we can afford, and we will feel good. Period.
  • If we do D&I because it drives innovation, propels market penetration and multiplies engagement – we will continue to strive for improvement and we will not stop, for only the sky is the limit. Continue!

Propelling Performance instead of supporting and protecting minority groups

Morale, ethics and responsibility can be great partner paradigms for D&I but they are limited and they also set an unfortunate tone about so-called subordinate groups. They often convey the notions of protection or support these groups might need or want. But the reasons why some groups are disadvantaged or underprivileged have very little, if no nothing to do with the groups’ members but with the dominating mainstream systems. Nevertheless, D&I support programmes continue to imply deficits and areas of development. Instead, D&I should rigorously focus on the potential of differences and the power of inclusion. The only deficit that should be flagged out is the extent to which companies sometimes waste this potential. D&I has to become an entirely positive paradigm, as the Propelling Performance Paradigm illustrates.

Opportunities for D&I to be a strong element of Corporate Identity

In the current Corporate context we have to be self-critical about our D&I journey and be ready and willing to unlearn. Above all, we have to overcome routine, copying & pasting and generic strategies – even if we think some of them were successful. Instead, we need to dig deeper and address more fundamental D&I issues in our organisations, including unwritten rules. The change energy must come from a rigorous business case rather than from compliance or ethical considerations. Based on an intrinsic interest, companies should also take strong public action to support Diversity & Inclusion and, in doing so, influence politics, societies and public opinion accordingly. We have seen a few great examples of large multinationals making public statements about the value of diversity recently. They can be sure to be heard by politicians and societies.

The ideas of the three parted analysis “Who are We?” were first presented to the public in a keynot address by Michael Stuber at the World D&I Congress, Mumbia, 17 Feb 2017.