There is an inescapable and increasingly frenetic cacophony around the issue of diversity or ‘difference’. Issues around race, gender, age, sexuality, class and many other ‘categories’ dominate the news and media. The ‘issues’ are surfacing everywhere, from politics to the corporate world, from communities to every-day mundane interactions. The dramas both real and imagined are noisy, newsworthy and impossible to ignore. They are systemic of a deeper and pervasive issue running through our contemporary societies that are inextricably interwoven by the threads of social media.

Of course this is hardly a ‘new’ issue. Prejudice and discrimination is as old as human history. The once distant compass points pointing to far-away Neverlands have increasing converged; what was once an imaginative stretch is now within a short reach as societies, and all that is inherent within them, collide with jarring frequency. A prejudice once hidden by distance and /or ignorance is now simply being made more explicit. What was once avoidable or could be justified and rationalised in some distorted way, is now simply an ever-present reality that refuses to be placated by the old and defunct explanations. The subject demands our attention; it is both a foundational stone as well as a capstone to all of our futures.

What should be of deep concern though is the alarming failure of the many past interventions to make a difference in this area. There has been a battery of attempts to highlight and deal with this concern, a concerted bombardment that seems to have yielded little return and in some cases may even have made things worse! Our best efforts have resulted in a ‘political correctness’ that straightjackets conversations and limits meaningful and authentic engagement. It is a constraint that we don’t seem to know how to free ourselves from and any attempts to do so appear clumsy and often yield deeper offence and hurt. “I simply don’t ask anymore” one frustrated senior executive said to me when it came to dealing with difference within his work environment, “because if I do it invariably just leads to trouble”.

In many instances within the corporate world, ‘diversity and inclusiveness’ training – as it has been tagged, is met with a resigned sigh and a numbing participation as something that ‘needs to be done’ with an unspoken acceptance that nothing will really change as a result of our efforts. Our initiatives merely add to the veneer covering the subject, glossing over it without us having to actually deal with it but at least we can tick if off as ‘done’. Somehow the irony is that our best efforts have made engaging with diversity (or what I prefer to simply call ‘difference’) even more inaccessible. The topic is fast reaching a point of burnout and fatigue that has rendered our well-intended efforts counter-productive.

Why is this?

I think it is because we have failed to understand the real core of the problem: ourselves. We have looked at addressing the subject from entirely the wrong standpoint and our approach, whilst good ‘on paper’ has failed to impact the real ‘on field’ behaviour. We have looked to put in place stringent rules to govern the on-field behaviour but failed to recognise that something more, something more fundamental and something deeper needs to be addressed.

To meaningfully engage with difference is to start with ‘Me’. Before looking at those ‘out there’ we first need to confront the person ‘in here’. The starting point for dealing with difference is to acknowledge my own biases and prejudices. It is to start with identifying and understanding the lenses through which I see and interpret the world around me. The reality is that we don’t see the world as it is but rather as we are. Allow me to use myself to illustrate this point: I am a white, male, South African, Baby Boomer. These are merely four (of many) ‘lenses’ through which I try to ‘make sense’ of the world and each, in their own way, radically impacts on ‘what it is I see’. To believe any different would be naive at best and intentionally stupid at worse. If I am to begin to see differently then I have to first ask how these inherent biases impact what I look at notwithstanding other powerful undertows such as religion, education, socialization and context.

In dealing with difference we have started at the wrong place. Whilst there is evidence of some progress, by and large, we have not got to where it is we intended.

This is and always has been, personal work; inner landscaping if you like and this type of work is largely alien to our formal learning structures and pedagogies. To do this essential work we need authentic processes not stand-alone programmes; we need time and space not the clipped and formatted schedules; we need subtle guides and givers of context not tick-box managers and ‘experts’; we need qualitative descriptors and not meaningless metrics; we need community and interdependence where we all understand what is at stake and what is the endgame rather than mere efficiencies and ‘functional teams’. In short, we need to rethink much of our entire approach to this subject if that is, we want a different outcome.

It will require both massive revisions and bold and courageous individuals (and organisations) to call “bullshit” on our current endeavours. We know this but someone has to be willing to take the lead and pioneer what really needs to be done, even if they don’t fully know how best to do that work or where exactly it may lead. Our society is fragmented, angry and in disarray. To some extent this reality gets muted when ‘society’ walks into our respective ‘places of work’ as a different set of rules get observed but this only serves to dull the noise and deflect the inescapable issues that remain.

So let me come back to the place we started and make some clear and bold statements for your consideration and hopefully action.

  1. The challenge of leading difference will be the predominant leadership challenge of the immediate future. It is work that needs to be done in order to unlock the real and obvious benefits of harnessing difference.
  2. This essential work is, at another level, work we all have to do. The leader’s responsibility is to create an environment where this work is permissible, possible and you (as a leader) need to be willing to demonstratively lead the way in doing the work necessary.
  3. We need to acknowledge that our best efforts to this point in time simply haven’t worked. In many respects dealing with difference is an adaptive challenge that has been treated and approached with a technical mind-set. A fundamental revision is needed by those tasked with the wonderful responsibility of educating, developing and training. It will take bold and courageous educators to challenge the current status quo and modus operandi of educational institutions tasked with preparing people to lead. Until we develop formal programmes and processes to engage this work in a meaningful way, we will have more of the same without making any real progress. Some of this will entail ‘giving permission’ to experiment with the design and metrics of current programmes; we will need to know what to keep, discard and create in order to develop leaders capable of leading difference effectively. (As an aside I know for a fact that there are many good and capable people within these institutions eager to engage in this work and contribute towards something more meaningful and sustainable. The obstacles blocking their way are not insurmountable.)
  4. Engaging in difference is to engage with oneself. This is where the work starts and perhaps never ends.
  5. This is a business or corporate issue. As such, it has to be addressed. Of course there are realities and constraints governing this environment but these shouldn’t prevent a meaningful and authentic engagement with is all-important issue.

There can be no more important task facing those in leadership. This matter goes to the very heart of what it means to lead people and invite their best in our business endeavours.

This blog post originally appeared over The Future of Work Academy.

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