Stop making crap excuses

David McQueen
Sep 2, 2018 · 9 min read

This is the first in a six part series of articles that I am writing to express some unfiltered views on the steps that companies can take to embrace inclusive cultures. They form the core of a keynote that I give call Minding the Gap, which focuses on how companies can create inclusive cultures.

Look, change management programmes are hard work. In fact bloody hard work. Whether you are a startup on a steep recruitment drive or an existing company having to restructure after a skills audit. If your a public sector organisation going through a rebranding or if you are looking to drive a strong narrative about how inclusive your company is.

I have had the pleasure of working with a number of companies around change management programmes. As my company is quite small, my role and the role of my associates has usually been in partnership with larger programmes. They have centred around leadership communication. How do we get the bigger message across whether through speaking, leadership coaching or crafting a compelling narrative of visual and/or audio content.

In each of these cases I have seen some major brands do well and learn quickly from their mistakes and others fail miserably. Each and every time the successful ones did so because they were explicit in their intent and the change programme aligned with company culture. The change programmes were also as the result of a well thought out business strategy.

When we are looking at inclusive cultures in companies, they exist because the organisations who look to ensure they work are intentional. This is not some kind of reactionary mission but something that is very strategic. Not a quick fix for HR or a caveat to protect from lawsuits but a true desire to align the management and support of talent to an overall strategic aim.

I often come across organisations in various sectors and industries of the public sector who desire cultural inclusion. Sometimes my advice is sought because the enquirer is looking to address this through the most talked about or assumed channel. That of diversity and inclusion (D&I).

We have the same conversations.

What are the things we can do to ensure this happens because we don’t have a clue?
What are those one or two things that can help us stand out?
How do we become a leading voice of D&I?

Time and time again, to many who seek to address this shortcoming want out of the box answers, quick fixes and silver bullets but don’t want to invest the resources in making it happen. The most obvious (and often downright lazy solution) is to create a series of unconcious bias training (UBT) programmes.

Why Unconcious Bias Training Hardly Ever Works

Now let me be clear here. I am not a fan of UBT. Either as a standalone online test or the delivery of one or two day workshops that seem to be the standard fare of many of the big (and some medium sized) companies. This doesn’t mean that people should do away with it as I am sure many will argue, but the overwhelming evidence across the board has shown that it doesn’t work as a stand alone intervention or has little effect on moving the needle on dealing with explicit biases in the workplace to help readdress imbalances on diversity and inclusion.

So that people don’t think this is my own bias here is a series of evidence based analyses and research pieces to prove my point.

  1. Using meta-analysis with evvidence from 72,000 participants and evidnce from 426 studies the authors of A Meta-Analysis of Change in Implicit Bias. found “little evidence that changes in implicit bias had any effect on explicit bias or behavior”.

2. The HBR report Why Diversity Programmes Fail discovered that voluntary rather than compulsary training had massive results in challenging bias. It is estimated that some $8bn was spent in the US in 2015/16 on diversity and unconscious bias training. Why would such money be spent on this when the evidence points out that this doesn’t work? How can one justify return on investment when this what the returns look like?

3. In 2018, Equality and Human Rights Comission, issued a report on the effectiveness of bias training here in the UK. This was part of an evidence based response to the 2017 ‘Race in the Workplace’ McGregor Smith report. The recommendation in the latter was that to tackle overt racism in the workplace the UK govt should supply free online UBT resources. With the best intent in the world, the EHRC found this desire wanting as the evidence did not support that UBT is effective. Whilst it raised awareness, there was little to no evidence such training reduced explicit bias or changed biased behaviour.

In addition to these pieces of research, a Time Magazine article, How diversity training infuriates men and fails women, noted how Harvard Professor Frank Dobbin discovered that diversity programmes when run had negative effects. He noted that for white women and black men and women in management positions, it actually made things worse. He specifically highlighted three trends in 75% of companies where they drew their data where a pattern of failure had one or more of the the following three factors
1) it’s mandatory;
2) when it so much as mentions the law; or
3) when it is specific to managers, as opposed to being offered to all employees.

So what does work?

Well let’s have a look again at that same HBR report Why Diversity Programmes Fail. The following chart identifies the kind of interventions that do work.

In the UK, Inclusive companies have a top list of companies that focus on representation at management, senior, executive and board level. Their audit has allowed them to identify which companies put their money where their mouth is.

The Sunday Times has a list of the best companies to work for. One of the standout criteria for these companies is the gender ratio and the low rate of voluntary leavers from companies, be they the big ones or small companies.

Thomson Reuters has designed a matrix, ranking over 7,000 companies with environmental, social and governance (ESG) data. The Thomson Reuters Business Classification ranks companies on their profitability with the benchmarks on four specific areas. A diversity pillar. An inclusion pillar. People Development. News and Controversies.

With all this data available in the public arena it is a wonder how some of the most smartest minds in the public and private sector can throw up their hands and say they don’t know how to ensure D&I, or more important executive lead inclusive cultures, can be designed and implemented.

Either people can’t be arsed to make this front and centre (which I tend to believe based on my experience) or there is an overwhelming lack of not knowing where to look which begs the question, how do you manage staff? Given that this is at it’s heart is a talent issue, the biggest overhead that any company has to cover, I am often surprised at the lackadaisical approach to searching for solutions.

Stop being so damn lazy!

I am hereby calling out senior leaders to stop being lazy.
I am especially signalling those HR leaders, especially in the C Suite, to pull their fingers out and stop making excuses.

In this short piece I have highlighted some of the interventions that do work. Positioning inclusive cultures as some quick fix that should only be in the hand of HR or a Diversity head is both short sighted and disingenuous. This is a strategic oversight that has to be seen across the whole company.

Diversity touches on so many areas. Representation in the main focuses on those visible groupings such as gender, race, orientation and ability. Too often these get maligned or sidetracked by the milquetoast “diversity of thought”. A weasel term too often used when people are afraid to dig dip into addressing workplace inclusion. The fact is that as humans we often have to deal with tensions and differences but if you look at long term partnerships in business, heck even friendships, civil partnerships and marriages, it is dealing with those tensions straight up that goes to the core of such healthy relationships.

Communication is Key

I am not a diversity expert. I say this time and time again. I actually come at the issue of workplace culture through the lens of leadership communication.

I know that way too many organisations actually suffer from diversity fatigue. Not because it is the wrong thing to do, but how cack handed so many initiatives have been. Too often approaching that should be strategic as a reaction to not being sued or perceived negatively in the press. So out come the United Colours of Benetton brochures for graduate programmes. Out come the initiatives to schools to promote such workplaces as centres of gender, class and racial parity when the reality is anything but.

For me I focus on what I know. What I know is that when it comes to talent management private companies are looking at the bottom line and public companies tend to look at it from a metric of efficiency. If this is a prominent pain point, why would my soluton be to address it in the first instance as a moral or ethical point. It didn’t take me long to find out comprehensive research and data to show that implicit bias training has no long lasting effects and has little or negative effects on explicit bias, how much more those larger corporations who have research teams who can inform their senior leaders?

Communication of workplace inclusion and diversity is that it has to be an integral part of the strategic vision. Organisations who whether they like it or not are having more global impact than ever. Whose every move is under the scrutiny of social media, shifting the focus away from the narratives once dominated only by mass media outlets.

That communication strategy shapes a clarion call that does not see visible or less obvious difference as something that can only be addressed through a punitive lens. It is driven by the leadership team not the people in legal or HR. If people screw up, work on developing a series of courses and programmes around conflict, listening, negotiation or interpersonal communication across cultures. Link that training and those metrics to employee engagement, innovation and your profit and loss. Whether that is developed in house or with external help or if you take the Thomson Reuters approach and create a benchmark that can be shared across your industry or sector.

Shaping inclusion as an investment with a clear ROI as opposed to a cost centre, at worst, a sunk cost.

In the same way we utilise our communication skills to empower staff, to develop strategic messaging to capture more leads and sales, to improve our customer experiences and journeys for existing stakeholders, we can use the same skillset to address the issues of privilege, discrimination and inequality without people having to feel it is an individual burden they have to bear.

Stop making excuses and stop being afraid of getting it wrong. Within many organisation there are usually a raft of unspoken voices who can share and help people to navigate unchartered territory. In the pipeline there are many people who can be hired to address these issues too, not as diversity experts, but professionals who see work through a different lense. Organisations like mine and others can also help where there is that knowledge gap. We can also point you in the direction of others who have done or are doing many of the things I mentioned already in this piece. It will take committment, investment and is not a quick fix. The evidence shows it works from decision making to distinct financial performance benefits it’s there to see.

I guess it’s about whether organisations who say they want to make such a difference are willing to put their mouth where there money is or vie for awards for doublespeak bingo.

In my next post, I want to tackle Why Black workers are afraid to speak out

Frankly Speaking

Outspoken views on leadership, effective communication and workplace culture

David McQueen

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Writing without filter.

Frankly Speaking

Outspoken views on leadership, effective communication and workplace culture

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