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Diversity and inclusion doesn’t have a finish line: don’t make it a race to perfection

By: Chris Parke, CEO at Talking Talent

There is an old saying that ‘practice makes perfect’, and when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the notion of a ‘perfect’ culture is something that has been cultivated, coached and instilled, rather than tested. Better still, when society evolves at such a rapid pace, and personal growth an ongoing pursuit, it may be better not to aim for perfection at all.

When balanced against familiar industry terms like operational excellence or benchmarking, not aiming for perfection may seem alien. Surely the end goal is perfection? But this is a dangerous stance to take, developing an inclusive workplace is not a race to the finish line, a contest to be won or a quest to a ‘perfect’ score. As the world changes, workplaces and thus DE&I initiatives must respond accordingly.

Amid the high-profile Black Lives Matter movement, many organisations refocused their approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Similarly, the annual International Women’s Day shines fresh light on heightened, new or developing shortfalls when it comes to gender equality across the industry landscape. These areas of focus are usually compounded by fresh research and analysis highlighting what an improved diversity and inclusion ethos could yield for your company. For example, McKinsey has been tracking the diversity debate over the past seven years and recently revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity among executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.

The danger that organisations need to bear in mind, however, is that such impacts and results aren’t a finale. Inclusion is an ever-evolving mission and requires an ever-evolving strategy. ‘Perfect’ isn’t the idea of ticking off diversity and inclusion (D&I) and moving on to the next issue. ‘Perfect’ is realising that perfection, in this regard, is not the goal.

D&I must be about coaching, not competition

 From an application standpoint, striving for perfection comes with a series of internal hazards too. In fact, by placing this end expectation on employees, it can actually go against what your business is trying to achieve.

With such sensitive issues at play, to award a ‘score’, or test levels of D&I perfection is counterproductive. You are likely to scare employees into trying to state the ‘right’ answer, even if they haven’t truly embraced or understood particular behaviours. Rather than learning from mistakes or being coached, workers are more likely to jump straight to what they think is the correct answer without necessarily understanding the meaning behind it.

Similarly, if there are ‘points’ to be gained, it automatically creates an environment of competition, of success versus failure, and of judgement. Again, when the desired outcomes are culture-based, rather than ROI or stat-based, this is an unfortunate setting to create. You’re essentially putting people in the position of choosing whether they want to learn and improve, or whether they want to pass the test and look good in front of colleagues and bosses.

Workers must have a place of psychological safety in the workplace, this is a place where they feel that they can call out exclusive behaviours with repercussion. It is also a place to practice those coached inclusive behaviours without being terrified of getting them wrong. A culture of judgement does not foster a culture of change.

Guidance should not be scored

This trend of training and testing, rather than coaching and guiding, has been a worrying development for some time now, and was recently brought to light through a focus on the value of ‘unconscious bias training’.

After being removed from civil servant training in 2020, the high profile case from Somerville College, Oxford University was brought to light as students undertook a 30-minute lesson to address unconscious biases within the institution, followed by a test in which they had to score 100%. Reportedly designed to be passed in such a way, with simple questions including ‘what is bias?’, the students came out the other side having supposedly achieved their goals, while the institution itself could profess to be striving forward when it came to unconscious biases.

Of course, the reality is likely to be very different. In fact, such a structure often favours the very individuals rooted in bias. Those with perceived ‘professional capital’ are typically those fast-tracked to supposed D&I completion, without taking all the necessary steps to learn about why such a focus is even needed in the first place. They certainly aren’t guided about how they can gradually play their part in shifting the wider systemic dynamic. Unsurprisingly, under-represented groups reported a feeling of being overlooked in this unconscious bias process.

Success hinges on real-life consequences

 Again, this attempted fast-track to perfection or ticking of a box is unlikely to bear fruit, long-term – making it an unsustainable effort, investment and ploy for decision-makers. However, the good news is that it doesn’t take a drastic shift of mindset to convert this intention to win, into an intention to improve.

The first step of acknowledging the need for a D&I strategy is more pivotal than it sounds and will already trigger a potential introspection or readjustment among employees. From that point, it’s about channelling this awareness in a more progressive and engaging way. In this respect, the focus should be on coaching, rather than training.

The latter implies a presentation, a certificate, something to put on the CV. The former nods to embedded knowledge and understanding that people can take forward in both current and future roles. And indeed, in life.

Most importantly, the success of a coaching programme hinges on actual real-life consequences. Whether unconscious biases really are being addressed and diminished. Whether underrepresented groups are tangibly experiencing equal opportunity. Whether open dialogues about ongoing progression really can be had without fear of judgement or ‘failure’.

Training and testing take all of those vital gauges out of the equation in the search for accolades, or high scores, or perfection. Really, true perfection is to make sure that this strive for diversity and inclusion is continuous.

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