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It’s not about 'them'. It’s about you.

Updated: Jun 29, 2019

Be a leader in Diverse and Inclusive Culture


One of the legacies of globalisation of our world is that our communities are becoming more diverse. In my last corporate role, we employed people from over 80 different nationalities. This shouldn’t be surprising, as almost half the Australian population have at least one parent born overseas. Sadly however, it isn’t that common. Too many organisations are still grappling with the challenge of holding the status quo. Keeping experience, language, traditional models and culture ‘fit’ at the heart of their recruitment and team. There’s a major business problem with this.


Narrow perspective = shallow talent pool


If we want access to the deepest pool of talent, we must look beyond people with an Anglo-Saxon background and beyond the traditional gender balance. We need to reconsider our views on age, background, ethnicity and many other population groupings. In fact, it is proven that businesses that are more diverse and inclusive perform better on nearly every metric, including profitability and returns to shareholders. Our world is diverse, our clients are diverse and it follows that our teams must be, too.


When I first started leading in this realm, organisations had diversity strategies. It was assumed that if you hire more diversely, culture would follow. Not necessarily so. The incoming and diverse talent found themselves needing to assimilate to traditional cultural norms to fit in. Take women, for example – for many years, if we exhibited too much of our ‘feminine’ side, we were labelled as soft and weak and incapable of strong leadership. We started changing our behaviour to more ‘male-like’ behaviour to be seen by our managers and peers as equal – despite the fact that we were proving ourselves on every measure.


Best practice has evolved with collective learning. Once an organisation begins to hire diversely, it is imperative that they have strategy around shifting cultural norms towards inclusion and equity. Without that, your diverse talent will not have the license to bring the colour and difference of their backgrounds and thinking to the table. They will feel compelled to ‘fit’ the culture and therefore fail to complement it. Adam Grant is recognised as one of the world’s top 25 thinkers on management. He is a strong advocate for moving away from culture ‘fit’ and towards culture ‘add’. It makes sense – if we hire to ‘fit’ our culture we plan for and achieve more of the same. This can be risky…


The stereotyping error


Culturise works with companies that are grappling with the question of how to become more diverse and inclusive. We know that people in our organisations carry with them attitudes towards people that belong to certain groups. We stereotype.


Stereotypes are when we take a common feature of people belonging to a group and apply that to the whole group. We then assume that every person in that group has the same feature. For example, a child that grows up in a home and family where women do most of the housework can develop the belief that all women are responsible for housework. I see assumptions being made way too often about the expected behaviours of Indigenous people and other marginalised groups based on stereotypes.


One of the key reasons that people treat other people differently is a thing called ‘unconscious bias’. Something that leads us to making assumptions about another person based on certain features, such as their gender, race, appearance, age and more. And the nature of the word 'unconscious' reminds us – it's not deliberate. Unconcious bias is a result of our histories, upbringing and all of the various influences we've been exposed to in life. We all have them!


We challenge people during training workshops to consider when and how they use the word ‘they’ or ‘them’. Particularly when we are talking about hiring diversely – too often we cast away a whole group because of our stereotypes. We don’t interview people who are overqualified because ‘they’ will want to move on. We don’t interview people with hard to pronounce surnames because ‘they’ might not speak good English. We talk endlessly about the challenge of hiring Millennials. They are too entitled…. Next time you use ‘they’ or ‘them’, think about the context. There are plenty of good reasons to group-talk, but also some that are not so good!


It’s not deliberate


Logic would suggest that in our efforts to solve the Diversity and Inclusion dilemma we look to ‘fixing’ the biases that are making it hard for us to recruit, employ and keep diverse talent. Unconscious bias training helps us begin to understand that our unconscious biases are just that. Not really our fault, but a function of a life lived in and around influences that create inbuilt bias. As we begin to build awareness of our own biases (providing we are willing), we can begin to question them.


In a highly publicised move, Starbucks USA closed 8000 stores in 2016 to carry out unconscious bias training following an incident where a store worker called the police because two black people seemed to spend too long sitting at a table in the store. Harvard Business School points us to numerous studies that show one-off unconscious bias training can be ineffective, or even damaging. Done poorly, stereotypes can be exacerbated and people can develop fears around how they are meant to behave. This can lead to avoidance and stress making people feel more isolated or defensive.


A culture of curiosity


The Cultural Intelligence centre defines Cultural Intelligence (CQ) around four pillars: Drive, Knowledge, Action and Strategy. At the core of the first pillar – Drive – is the desire to learn about people, not as stereotyped groups (e.g. Indians vs Chinese, Millennials vs Gen Ys), but as individuals and cohorts. Cultural curiosity is at the heart of this. Learning about individuals and groups without the labels that bring up bias. By fostering a culture of curiosity in an organisation, people are compelled to learn about the person, not the stereotype. For example, if you are a caucasian person meeting another ‘white person’, you probably don’t ask them about their religion or heritage. We get to know them in a much more informal way – what do you do? What are your interests? What might we have in common? In the context of getting to know people from a clearly different background, we can be a lot more careful and more formal in our approach.


It’s not them


I talk to hundreds of employers about the way that we stereotype. Our reasons for not hiring from marginalised groups – groups that are perceived to have a harder time holding down employment than others. When I ask about the barriers to employment they invariably start with ‘They’:

- 'They' are unreliable

- 'They' are lazy

- 'They' don’t have experience

- 'They' don’t have skills

- 'They' are a safety risk.


In my traditional teams I have dealt with instances of unreliability, laziness, inexperience, skill gaps and plenty of safety risks. These are not specific to any group – they exist in every group. Every ‘group’ has rising stars, stars, falling stars and plenty of people happy to float around the cosmos that is work. If we look at ourselves as leaders and see our people as individuals rather than part of ‘them’, we may just achieve amazing things. It’s up to you.



I love coffee. If you'd like to join me for one to chat further, drop me a line jo.marshall@culturise.com.au




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