Some are more equal than others

I’ve been a great believer in initiatives to improve the gender imbalance and to focus on diversity of all kinds. I genuinely want to be inclusive.

But the more I look at it, the more I think that most of our actions are just window dressing. I wonder if we’re acting, but essentially undertaking institutional appeasement. Saying the right things, whilst nothing really changes.

What if business is essentially a masculine construct, with male rules and the only way to succeed is by being more male than the men?

I wrote a post back in 2013 called “Just a middle class white guy” and reading it now I think I only scratched on the surface of something that actually significantly hampers our ability to genuinely leverage organisational performance

Not only are all our rules are stacked in favour of men. We’ve taken the rule book and hidden it behind third urinal from the left.

When we go for an interview and they are looking for qualities like “commercial”, “decisive”, “confident” or “ambitious”.

When meetings are ruled by the “single minded”, “focused”, “action orientated” and the “natural leaders”.

What are we really talking about?

Of course, I’m not saying that women don’t have these characteristics or indeed that men automatically do. What I’m saying is that our laziness and sloppy use of language hides a darker truth.

We build our assumptions of success based on the evidence that we have around us. But if that evidence is based on an uneven foundation, are we sure that we really know what is genuine success?

We reward, we promote, we recruit and we develop people in the model of business that is built on a masculine premise. We tell people that they need to be more like our predetermined view of the “norm” if they are going to succeed. We develop them towards this and reward them when they comply.

The more that I look at it, this won’t be solved by initiatives, campaigns or well-meaning propaganda. This will only be solved by wholesale reform and re-engineering of organisational culture and practice by the “male types” that run them.

But most likely, it just won’t. Or at least, not any time soon.

The myth of inclusivity

I’ve been involved in a lot of debates about diversity and inclusion recently. The conversations are fascinating and the views diverse in themselves. With one particular area of seemingly strong consensus when confronting the issues that we face;

It’s never our fault.

Of course, this is completely natural. We all like to think of ourselves as liberal minded, inclusive and welcoming people (well most of us). It’s just everyone else, they’re the problem.

Going back over thirty years I can remember my Grandmother telling me she wasn’t a racist like those other people, she even used the “Paki shop”. Whilst we can all look at this with the shock that time permits, she genuinely meant it. But this isn’t a generational thing, how many of us can hand-on-heart, honestly say that we don’t have perceptions and expectations of the opposite gender?

So if we all want this all inclusive, welcoming, meritocracy, what gets in the way?

When we talk about the culture of our organisations, we talk about the way in which people behave, the way in which people act towards one another, we talk about our values and we talk about the way in which we do things.

In HR we talk about how we can underpin the culture with our interventions; recruiting to fit, rewarding to incentivise, training to develop and structuring to facilitate. We build our organisations to reinforce the very cultures that contradict our conscious intention.

Culture gets in the way of and we reinforce the culture through our actions and our formal and informal systems. It’s rarely our intent.

The challenge we have is to get beneath intent and start to challenge these behaviours, systems and structures. Which invariably means challenging the way in which we feel naturally comfortable in doing things, how we make decisions and how we design our businesses.

Diversity and inclusion aren’t improved by tokenism, “programmes” or initiatives. They can’t be when our organisations are still constructed around an infrastructure that is decidedly “exclusive” and rewards people for conformity of behaviour and compliance to a set of unwritten rules.

The start of the path to improving organisational inclusivity is recognising that we are all part of the problem. The smallest act, or use of language multiplied a million times a week, the unintended consequence of doing something the way we’ve always done, the choices and decisions that we’ve learnt to make.

We have the power to make things better, we can choose to make a change, but in order to do that we need to do two things; accept that we are not ok and that, at the end of the day, it IS all our fault.

The first possible answer

Do you think there is one single truth? How about one single answer? A definitive version of right?

Our explanation of our existence and the decisions that we make is defined by our retrospective analysis. Our psychology such that we create a narrative that supports our past conclusions. Only sometimes do we reflect and say, “what if?” and then when we feel external factors have left us short-changed.

Ironically at the same time we base our current thinking and decisions on our past. The past that we have rewritten to justify the decisions that we’ve made, becomes the foundation for our future direction. It’s a perfect circle of deception.

The product of this is that we tend to stop at the first possible answer. Our organisations are run by people that rely on this, which is why we struggle with genuine diversity of ideas and look for consensus. When we tend to have shared history, shared retro-perspective, we form more of the same conclusions. It makes things…..quicker.

But what is the probability that the first possible answer, is always the right one? Or even the best one?

Learning to ask the “what if” before rather than after, learning to listen to different views, learning to understand that our perspective is based on our rewriting of the past and that the more that we surround ourselves with people with similar pasts, the more we are likely to reinforce our single perspective. Could any of this help us make better decisions?

In science we talk about the null hypothesis. When we reject it without disproving its basis, we invalidate our research. Yet in business, we call it being commercial and agile, strong leadership.

Trying asking “what if” now and not after and see whether that moves you past your first possible answer. You might be surprised by the results.