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Diving in to the sea of diversity and inclusion

I recently had the honour of delivering a workshop to 25 highly qualified People and Culture Professionals as part of the NSW Government Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) conference. This group had collective responsibility for over 30,000 public sector employees across agencies from local government to state and federal agencies, health and policing.


I asked the group prior to the workshop what their biggest challenges were.

Here’s what they told me:


• Change - Culture Shift – Traction beyond the passionate

• Depth of Stereotypes

• Ageing Workforce

• Male dominated

• Numbers and distance

• Awareness and education

• Operations, ownership and priorities - Change Fatigue

• Targets and measuring – how to?

• Lack of local diversity


Whether you are a People and Culture / D&I practitioner or not, I’d welcome your thoughts on these whether you share these challenges.

I figured based on that feedback that this group of leaders were no different to many of the leaders I work with in private sector. They want tools to make change simple and easy. Every agency represented had strategies that point towards a more Inclusive and Diverse workplace. Not all of them had a strong handle on the role of equity. Many had targets to achieve and all had a passion for the cause.

We started our workshop considering the broader challenge might be described as


“getting our very different fish to swim

in ‘almost’ the same direction”


On the back of their feedback, I decided to break the day into two key blocks.


1. What is this really all about? A deep dive into how people’s minds work around difference, the neuroscience of bias and the role of habits.

2. How can we effect continuous improvement in our agencies – at the DOING level. This was delivered as series of what I called Diversity and Inclusion Hacks


To follow I share the first in a series that will step you through these concepts in the 'Culturise' way.


What’s this really all about?


There are countless studies of the most important human needs. What makes us happy? Does happiness affect health? Human connection comes up as the most important emotional need of humans over and over again. The existence of, quantity and quality of human connections is proven to impact our happiness, our health and even our length of life.


At our deep-dive workshop we connected firstly with each other through sharing stories. Each person shared a thought, memory or story that has contributed to why they believe in D&I so much that they commit their full-time working hours to it. We then reflected on how people feel towards each other and the day. People became open and highly complementary of one another at this point. Asking them to reflect brought out their gratitude for other’s sharing their stories. Gratitude is another well studied contributor to happiness in life.


We moved on to explore the role of human connection in the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity space. Inclusion sits at the very heart of this piece. If people are not included, or importantly given access and the ability to decide if they wish to be involved, then no amount of talk about equity or diversity will bear fruit.


A lot of organisations carry out unconscious bias training to assist with inclusion. If we understand out biases, we can work on them and ultimately change the way that we approach others with certain differences. The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is the world’s most commonly used assessment of human bias. Through Project Implicit, Harvard uses this assessment framework to help people understand their natural biases towards a wide range of stereotypes including race, age, gender, sexual orientation and even health profiles such as smoking, alcohol and so on.


For a wide range of reasons, we rarely advocate to organisations to utilise this assessment framework as part of their D&I journey. We also never advocate training on Unconscious Bias as a stand-alone solution to resolve bias and inclusion issues. Unconscious Bias education and opening the conversation around it is a key ingredient. But it is by no means the only ingredient. Individual curiosity is the main ingredient - Developing a desire to understand individuals and how they are both similar and different to us. Each person is different to the next and ultimately combining curiosity about the individual and a desire to recognise and reduce unconscious bias make a great dish!


Unconscious Bias training is the sauce to the spaghetti that is curiosity.

(famous quote by Jo Marshall)


If we engage at the individual level and show curiosity about the that person - we are connecting. It is that human connection that leads us to inclusion. It gives us an opportunity to uncover how that person doesn’t fit our pre-conceived bias – whether or not we are consciously aware of it.


Living in Australia, you may well have heard someone utter the phrase ‘He’s not bad for a (insert your choice of slang reference to just about any other race here)’. I’ve certainly been told ‘you’re not bad for a Sheila’…. For those unaware, ‘Sheila’ is (or was) a commonly used slang term for woman.


These examples demonstrate how our minds go through what’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Without going into science, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. Often when we receive new information that contradicts existing beliefs. For example, I believe all people from a particular background are unkind. When I am confronted with a person from that background who shows only kindness, I will suffer cognitive dissonance.


Let’s say my parents brought me up to deeply dislike people of a certain nationality. Then, years later, through the course of my work I find myself getting to know a person of that nationality – and I also find that I’m getting to like them. In order to re-balance my mind, I effectively (and subconsciously) separate that person from the stereotype. “She’s not bad for a ‘…..’” is the mind’s way of choosing to accept a person’s positives, despite the stereotype. Sure, it’s not as good as blasting the stereotype away completely, but it’s a start.


If we create more and more opportunities for people to meet and get to know others at the individual level, we will slowly reduce that dissonance and realise that we are all individuals – with plenty of similarities and some fabulous differences too.


So ‘what’s it really about?’ as our title asks. To me - it’s about bringing difference into the organisation through Diversity Strategy and growing Inclusion through consistently improving human connection. Some key drivers of that connection - individual curiosity and the gradual reduction in unconscious bias. These combined are important steps, but we don’t truly succeed until they combine to achieve Equity – more on that later.


Even for experts in Diversity and Inclusion some shared stories and reflection on the key messages and meanings is a powerful energiser to keep tackling the challenges of organisational culture.


#DifferenceIsTheNewNormal is one of my favourite phrases and the first section of our deep dive culminated with meaningful actions around embedding this simple message into our teams before we got into the action packed session on D&I tools and ‘hacks’. Stay subscribed and I’ll share them soon.


This Deep Dive was developed as an extension of our ‘Diversity and Inclusion – What’s it all About’ workshop which is a highly interactive ½ day workshop for middle and senior managers. Interested? Drop me a line – jo.marshall@culturise.com.au

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