Lionel Shriver is wrong

It was with a level of incredulity that I read the comments by Lionel Shriver over the weekend about the inclusivity agenda being championed by Penguin Random House. For those who know me, I spent the best part of 9 years in the business and would like to think that I was in some way responsible for the creation and direction of many of the approaches – not least the removal of the requirement to have a degree.

Shriver, writing in The Spectator, presents a shambolic and intellectually inarticulate assessment of the work that is being done, summarised by the BBC article here.

Anyone who has ever tried to champion inclusion will tell you that these arguments are nothing new. But they are almost always entirely articulated by those in positions of power. I have yet to hear from an underrepresented group who says, “do nothing, the best people are already in place”. And in a sense, that is the first major challenge that you  face.

In changing any system to be more inclusive and diverse, you are ultimately dependent on those in power to cede their right to that position and to change the system that has perpetuated their dominance. That’s why social mobility has been so hard to tackle, because in many ways you’re asking the rich wealthy and powerful to make things a little harder for generations of their family to come.

The aim of our work, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, is to make the world of work fairer and more transparent. We have to do everything we can to ensure that the best succeed, regardless of their background. That’s what inclusion is about and to suggest in any way it is dumbing down is insulting, ill-informed and naive. The system in which we operate is unintentionally rigged towards certain groups and certain backgrounds and all we are doing is unpicking that bias.

As a note of caution, we do have to be careful to ensure the work that we do remains true to that goal – to allow the best to succeed. Diversity and inclusion programmes that become tokenistic displays of good intention are as unhelpful as the problem they are trying to solve. Where Shriver is right is to call out the risk of losing focus on the real change that needs to be made, increasing fairness and allowing potential to shine, on pretty much everything else she is wrong and woefully out of touch.

 

 

Barrels of water & impenetrable cultures

In Tours in France, there is a beautiful medieval square called the Place Plumereau, now the home to multiple bars and restaurants. As a thriving spot, it offers employment opportunities, pouring drinks, serving tables, preparing food. The employees get to know one another, many of them working there for years and forming tight bonds. It is also the place a lot of young, and often needy, people go to get their first job.

Anyone who has ever learnt to work behind a bar knows that, regardless of how much time you’ve spent on the other side, it takes a little time to get to know the ropes. The disorientation, vulnerability and willingness that comes with learning , allows the experienced to test the new comers.

As the bars start to fill in the early evening and the customers start to line up, one of the experienced staff will turn to a new starter and declare that they’re all going to be in trouble, there’s a real problem, they’ve run out of water. Could they go and see whether one of the other bars will loan them a barrel of water?

The quickly go to the first bar, but unfortunately they’ve also run out, they suggest the next one to try. But again, no luck, they have just enough for the evening. The poor new employee, getting increasingly panicked and red in the face is sent from pillar to post, from bar to bar with a promise that if they just try one more, they’ll surely find the answer there.

And of course, there are no barrels of water. The water comes out of the taps in the same way that it does in their home. The victim is part of an initiation, a joke that is played, in one variation or another, on countless employees trying to show willing just to “fit in”.

This is a simple manifestation of the impenetrable culture that exists in so many of our organisations. Where we challenge people to complete pointless tasks to demonstrate their commitment to and compatibility with the organisation. At the worst extremes it is expressed by borderline discriminatory behaviour, but more usually by more benign, but equally thoughtless behaviour designed to test “fit”.

No matter how hard the individual tries, no matter the efforts that they put in, the end only comes when one of the established decides they’ve shown enough to end the game and allow the individual to join the ranks, or instead they become so frustrated and despondent that they decide to leave – regardless of the cost to themselves.

It may not be a barrel of water, it might be “understanding the business”, or “being more part of the team”, it could be the need to be “more vocal, visible or present”. Ultimately we place the same challenges on people, day in and day out, without really understanding the measures of success, other than receiving our acceptance. And although different, they are equally fictitious and pointless, testing nothing but perseverance and willingness to endure. Which of course, has absolutely no relevance to anything meaningful in the context of the organisation. Not even the ability to pour a beer.

Inclusion isn’t passive

The past six months have brought a focus on social and economic divisions that is greater than probably any other period of my lifetime. And with it comes the talk of the need for greater cohesion and the inevitable use of the word inclusion. Every aspect of our life needs to be more “inclusive”.

The joy of the word inclusion is that it has a very personal appeal. Greater inclusivity offers the promise that I, myself, may be better involved, better consulted, better represented in the aspects of life where I feel the outcomes don’t match with my personal agenda.

It is why many business have honed in on the inclusivity tag over and above diversity. The psychological inference of diversity is about others, about difference and about the things that we need to change. Whereas inclusion can be seen to have something in it for me, without an imperative to do anything different.

The value of inclusion starts with understanding your relative position of influence in the system. We all have an inherent desire to be included in things, that’s the constant nagging of our ego, the genuine reason for FOMO. The value only manifests if we understand our role and our contribution and how we can effect change for those that are around us.

With the positive connotations of the use of inclusion, we must not avoid the practical implications, the systemic and structural requirements that are needed to achieve it. Rarely will we view our own “system” as being exclusive, most people believe themselves to be welcoming, to be tolerant and to contribute in a way that allows anyone to prosper and succeed. Instead we look to the actions, the behaviours and beliefs of others.

At the heart of any change is action. If we want to see a different result, we need to do different things, behave in different ways and adopt different beliefs. That is true for all of us, for “them”, for me and for you. And in turn that means that there will be give and take as the system moves and adapts to accommodate a new norm.

Inclusivity isn’t soft, it isn’t passive, it isn’t a polite middle class way of addressing the needs of society. It is real and gritty and challenging and meaningful. It requires us all to assess our own
role and contribution. For more voices to be heard, more people need to listen, for more difference, we need less conformity and for more giving, we need less self. And for all of that, it needs to start with I, not you.

Inclusion means acceptance

I’m going to let you in to some secrets, just don’t tell anyone you heard this from me….

  • Not everybody wants to work flexibly. Some people like being in the office every day.
  • There are people who come to work each day for the money. They don’t care who for.
  • Some people don’t want to be promoted, their ambition is to be left alone to do their job.
  • Self development doesn’t have to be about work. Some people learn all the time without you.

I could go on….

The thing is, just because we think it’s valuable, doesn’t mean it is.

As HR professionals, as professionals in the world of work we have to be incredibly careful that we don’t affirm our own and our professional biases on the workplace. We happily argue that we need to be more flexible, that we need to develop flexible organisations, but then we tell people that we’ve benchmarked our pay and that we are a median to top quartile payer and look with disdain at anyone who suggests they should have more. Why is one more important to us than the other?

We talk about inclusivity, without realising that means we need to create the environment that allows people to value the things that we don’t. That it means we need to accept that not everything will conform to the HR 101 Model Workplace and that we will need to accommodate a genuine breadth of needs and requirements.

Who says the person that needs extra money in order to pay for their family to go on holiday is more unreasonable, less worthy or more indulgent than the person who asks for flexible working to spend a day at week at home with theirs?

Who says that the person that comes in at 9 and leaves at 5 and doesn’t want to attend any of the learning and development courses, but spends their evenings learning different languages, has less potential than their colleague that takes any opportunity to advance their career?

When we think about the world of work, when we think about our organisations and workplaces, we need to check ourselves and ask which lens we’re looking through. Are we really making decisions that allow all to benefit? Or just the ones that we agree with.