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The Truth About Corporate Diversity

Ever wonder why the discourse around diversity is so divorced, in the main, from a deeper cultural .


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Aarron Spinley

3 years ago | 9 min read

Well, you should be, though not to the extent that it is a deliberate ploy by scandalous corporate executives. At least in most cases, that is a bridge too far. The problem is more in the way we have been taught to think.

Our institutionalized outlook, where our personal and corporate worldviews overwhelm any possible correction.

You can’t fix what you can’t see.

But whilst the lack of cultural vision is not deliberate, that does not diminish it, nor its impacts. And also, no, that does not mean we can’t address it. But you need to know how to see first.

Let’s start with where the debate usually starts and ends. That word: “diversity”.

It’s a popularized topic now (finally), and marginalized people are slowly finding their voice as a result. In fact, most boardrooms and company executive teams have diversity targets, so long as you are content to define — and constrain — the term to the sexes.

Despite these targets, many would argue that this is often still ‘lip service’, whilst dated cultural conditions remain.

They are right, and this article will explain why.

Although you could argue this is directly related to growth, my overriding subject matter, this is still a slightly different topic than I usually write about in this column, but I feel compelled.

You see, there is a leader of a firm that I know, who has come to recognize the presence of gender discrimination in his business and more than that, the toll it is taking on many of his female colleagues.

He is concerned, and he is acting, addressing the issue with his senior team and wider staff alike, and meeting with affected individuals for their perspectives. I really like the latter action, because it gives voice to those who did not have it before. It is bad enough to ignore those who aren’t in the room, but the psychological damage done to those who are already there, and yet invisible, is far worse.

But whilst there is much to like about the heart being shown by that leader, he, like his peers everywhere, face a major underlying problem.

If a diversity and inclusion issue does exist, it does not do so in isolation. It only has oxygen because an underlying culture provides for it.

Yet the tendency to look only at the symptomatic headline is an ingrained limitation of corporate think today.

From the butcher, baker, and candle-stick maker to the head of sales and marketing or HR, the CEO and board of directors; most folk only ever operate at two structural levels, no matter how “intelligent”. As a result, they fail the leadership burden, and the environment for all kinds of cultural issues is established.

Those two levels are, “headline” and “system”. Let me share an example.

In my career, I have had the opportunity to see a number of corporate acquisitions up close, and they all share remarkable similarities, which I didn’t understand until I studied futures, a component of the social sciences.

Through that lens, you find that when something large, acquires something small, the post-transaction behavior is almost text-book predictable.

The acquirer wrestles with the stereotypical bear hug, the notion that it might love its new toy to death. It lives in fear that its larger-scale corporate apparatus might strangle any agility right out of the acquired company.

The acquired on the other hand, raises the barricade. They talk up this perceived agility when, in many instances, “immaturity” might have been a more accurate word. They sniff that fear and they trade on it, not because they are bad people, but because they too live in fear — an even greater fear usually.

They romanticize their “traditional” identity and become protectionist. They proclaim that “everything will stay the same!”. Sadly, their denial and defensiveness can manifest in arrogance, and I have noticed that this is in direct proportion to how well lubricated they are yesteryear’s kool-aid.

Both parties trade on emotional positions. Neither trades on growth.

That’s the headline. Its easy to see, and once senior executives get through those first waves of fear-based inaction, they (usually) start looking for ways to fix it. They set up joint forecast calls and create co-staffed project teams and so on. That’s the system.

None of it works though, because the underlying worldviews simply don’t support it.

So there is either a violent swing back to the past (which can only last so long), or a search for new answers, the much healthier scenario.

Like I said, all totally predictable. Why? Let’s talk about metaphors and worldviews.

The subconscious metaphor (or myth), in the mindsets of the acquired company, is always something like: “I know better”.

As a consequence they refuse to allow appointments of people from their new owners to senior positions (or actively seek to remove or marginalize them), they maintain separate company lines and resist shared forums, they keep their marketing teams or data at arm’s length from their peers, decline to share offices, and take potshots at their owners.

And all along the way, they deny their people the safety that they need, in order to adapt. It is a most quintessential failing of leadership, which is supposed to serve

In this system of separation and protectionism, a culture is borne — ingrained with suspicion, anxiety, and fear. There is no escape from it.

Culture is always the direct result of operating models. Slogans mean nothing.

Now, let’s move the lens a little. What if the acquired firm consciously rejected its old metaphors, and adopted a new one? Something like:

“Superpowered for Growth”.

Suddenly the worldview shifts. The fear they had of losing control, albeit of an expired identity, starts to fade away, and in its place, excitement builds. They start to appreciate that yes, true growth will be powered by their big new owner, and that actually, this gives them superpowers to take on massive new challenges. As that mindset takes over, they start to see vast horizons, and they visualize that everything that came before, was only ever a foundation to the achievements that await them now.

Then, the system changes!

The barricades come down. To get to that superpower, they join forces with their parent company. They want to share marketing and data, and they know that they need to share collaboration spaces. They start to pursue the relationships that will unleash their promise.

That kind of change is sustainable change. It’s bone deep, and its core to identity. You see:

Behavior can only change sustainably when the system does, and the system only changes sustainably, when the worldview does.

I took my time to share that example, it’s probably the majority of this article, because the principles and lessons apply to diversity and inclusion, and in fact to every other corporate cultural challenge that you can think of.

Yet when leaders see the headline “we have a diversity problem”, they instantly gravitate to the system level problems, without realizing that they are still just looking at symptoms, not the cause. They have not explored the metaphors and worldviews that give rise to the system problems, nor how to disown them, let alone how to replace them.

Ok, so now what I’m about to say would normally be considered controversial! But it’s not really, not when you understand the above. Here we go.

You don’t need equal gender representation in company leadership to ensure diversity and inclusion.

That my friends, is a populist myth.

What you do need is an inclusive culture — manifest in every leader — irrespective of their gender, even if they are all the same.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have gender balance at the table.

We already know that if you don’t you are ignoring a massive talent pool; that businesses that do are 21% more likely to experience above-average profits (“Delivering Through Diversity”, McKinsey 2019); and that failing to do so contradicts contemporary labor market demands, not to mention it is a potential indicator of a cultural diversity gap in of itself. And oh yeah, that it’s simply the right thing to do!

In other words, you should be doing that anyway. Duh.

But what I am saying, is that in isolation, this too is nothing more than a system level shortcut to a headline.

In fact, when pulling this piece together, I spoke to women who have suffered some of the worst discrimination from other women. You might think that counter-intuitive, but if you know anything about human bias and belief systems, then you know that they do not comply with the imaginary and political boundaries we have erected for them.

Ergo, companies that do have women spread across key executive positions, are not immune from discriminatory tendencies.

This is where so much of the discourse breaks down. We keep debating system level responses to a fundamentally deeper level problem.

It. Simply. Does. Not. Work.

You know, when Microsoft surged by USD80bn during 2019, its CEO Satya Nadella was asked by the Wall Street Journal, what he did to drive such growth. Those who follow his career will not be surprised that his answer emphasized culture — all the great leaders do — and he went on to describe a fundamental, and very deliberate change he made to the internal metaphor of that business.

From: “Mr. know it all”
To: “Mr. learn it all”.

Notice he didn’t talk about the operational and people (system) changes he made, though they were many. The core of the transformation was much deeper. He knew that in order to move the needle on the worldview of his people, he would need to vanquish the metaphors (and myths) that had held them back and introduce new ones, that would power them forward.

And guess what?

Something funny happens when you shift worldviews. Just like the corporate acquisition example earlier, you see things you never noticed before. You become excited by things you had never even conceived of. Conversely, you feel offended or challenged by things that never previously registered as problems.

And when that happens, it is a natural progression that you modify systems to match your (new) worldview. That system change creates the cultural shift we need, and only then, is it sustainable.

Let me just re-cap the value chain:

Metaphors (and myths…) underlies Worldviews.

Worldviews, underlies Systems.

Systems underlies culture, and that ALWAYS changes the headline.

Perhaps the most challenging piece to all of this, is that it requires us to grapple with our inner selves. All of us. Starting with leadership. Make no mistake, this is personal. As Michael Jackson put it, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror”.

The study of futures calls this, inner visioning, and the principle applies to business as well.

To achieve mainstream diversity and inclusion and any other cultural transformation in your organization, it requires an understanding of your organizational scaffolding; the myths and metaphors, and thus the worldviews that occupy your people.

There is no escape from it, the short cuts simply do not work.

A Note to Leaders

For executives reading this, it is a salient point that where you have cultural conditions that allow for these issues, they allow for others as well.

You might also want to be on the lookout for discrimination of other types, problems with internal “boy’s clubs”, cronyism between your execs and those from customers doing side deals that undercut your teams, a propensity for “same-same” people promotions, and ‘tells’ in the profile of folk either quitting the business or just opting off the corporate ladder.

So the question becomes:

What are the metaphors of your organization? What worldviews pervade your corridors? Do you know?

It goes further. If you find dated or worse, toxic, worldviews are immovable in some folk, especially senior folk, then who then will you serve?

This is perhaps the greatest, and most persistent, leadership challenge there is. True leadership, costs. It demands personal change first, and tough decisions. It is hard. That’s why the great leaders, are truly great, and worthy of our admiration.

So here’s the deal.

Unless we are prepared to make the personal investment to go beyond the headlines and systems, we simply can’t make the inclusive long term changes that are so badly needed.

It won’t be by thinking about detections, town-hall pronouncements, culture-cry-taglines, or over-steering into short term systems, like gender-only based appointments.

First, we must be vulnerable enough, and courageous enough to go deeper.

This article was originally published by Aaron spinley on medium.

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Aarron Spinley

Aarron Spinley is a growth strategist, business anthropologist, and futurist who observes culture, society, and digital . More here: www.spinley.co


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