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Thinking the Unthinkable On Diversity and Inclusion

by Didi Ogede

File under Diversity of Thinking

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Diversity and Inclusion - two familiar terms often used. But what do they really mean in practice? Are we seeing sustained progress towards equal opportunities and non-discrimination and more inclusivity in organisations? Most importantly, are we seeing greater diversity of thinking? These are some of the questions that the independent, non-partisan research project, Thinking the Unthinkable is raising.

How should diversity and inclusion be addressed?

Diversity and inclusion are among the top five themes that we have identified in our Thinking the Unthinkable research over the past four years. We have carried out rigorous data analysis drawing on over 2,500 pages of confidential interview transcripts with leaders and hundreds of informal conversations.

Over half of our data files include mentions of diversity and inclusivity. There are 300 plus references. Our key finding is the need to diversify and broaden our current conceptions of diversity and inclusion.

Our analysis suggests that we should not focus solely on one aspect, such as race or sex.

Inclusion in terms of disability, religion, age, geographic and social background are equally important. Also, diversity of views and ideas - having people with different skill sets and thinking - is vital. A diverse and inclusive team is less likely to be prone to groupthink if – and this is often a big “if” - the organisational culture fosters diverse thinking.

This seems to be highly valued by leaders. In our interviews, leaders repeatedly mentioned the words: ‘diverse opinions’, ‘teams’, ‘people’, ‘views,’ ‘cognitive diversity’ and ‘cultural diversity’.

Saj Jetha, founder of Smarty Train, which helps organisations unlock and retain talent, says that “diversity of ideas, diversity of opinions, makes for successful commercial success”.

If a leader is truly open to challenges and to alternate perspectives, then diversity and inclusion can deliver real positive change within their organisation. This includes challenging conformity, providing fresh ideas and encouraging what others might ill-advisedly regard as “maverick” solutions – what we see as potentially wise solutions.

We argue that the organisations more open to assessing risks and opportunities long term are better placed to thrive on change and to manage disruption.

A key success factor seems to be whether an organisation’s values include a focus on wider social, collective purpose. Our research shows that purpose is cited by leaders in more than 130 transcripts with 470 plus references.

A deep dive into Purpose is being led by Professor Colin Mayer of Oxford Said Business School. His goal is to confirm whether it is possible to prove empirically that a greater focus on values brings value to a company. He has said: “Corporate governance should be about assisting companies to deliver on their purpose. Having the ‘balls’ to do it, having the diversity to deliver.”

A wider look:

If we look at the wider literature on diversity and inclusion, the advantages for adopting them seem evident.

In the case of gender, research shows the economic benefits of a workforce with a more equal gender balance.

Diversity and inclusion in terms of religion is important in the current climate of extremism and xenophobia. Having people from various faiths (or no faith) working together can help alleviate ignorance and stereotypes and increase understanding about different cultures.

Regarding race, there has been increased focus on the ethnicity pay gap, helping to raise awareness of the issue. However, only about 3% of large employers in the UK have so far voluntarily reported their ethnicity pay gaps. More needs to be done in this area and legislation passed, requiring companies to report.

Diversity of age can be a powerful motor for change according to our research. Our case studies (Aviva, DBS and Safaricom) show that intergenerational engagement within organisations - such as reverse mentoring - paves the way for more varied, robust ideas and solutions to address organisational challenges and speed up growth.

Advice to leaders:

For an organisation looking to truly have an effective diversity and inclusion policy or strategy, they need to consider varied forms of diversity and inclusion working simultaneously.

Leaders need to engage and listen to their staff from all levels of the organisation and work in a collaborative manner. For example, Diversity and inclusion committees/councils made up of people from different ethnic backgrounds, genders and skill sets.

As Yvette Williams, campaigner for justice for the victims of the Grenfell fire (Justice4Grenfell) puts it: “Be honest and be open to change. Be diversity brave rather than diversity blind. Be proactive rather than reactive on diversity and inclusion.”

“Look at their (leaders’) attitudes and behaviours first otherwise you lead in the wrong direction. People are tired of talking and frustrated that no impactful actions happen. Don’t just focus on increasing representation numbers; focus on how you make people belong to your organisation. Raise the collective standard in your organisation especially about how people engage. Begin by listening to those who feel marginalised and ‘include’ their expertise in finding solutions.”

Our research shows the huge importance of cognitive diversity for leaders. Being able to listen and take on alternative views and ideas is key in this age of disruption and rapid change. Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, leadership coach and award-winning author, rightly summarises: “We’ve seen that cognitive diversity improves performance in boards, and this would be corporate as well as governmental.”

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Written by Did El-Mawas, Insight and Strategy Manager, Thinking the Unthinkable

Join the conversation

David Schofield commented on 25 May 2019

Thank you for this Did.

I found this a very timely, relevant and encouraging read – related to my own work. As a coach, my focus is on supporting individuals to recognise, develop and celebrate the diversity in themselves and others. Purpose is fundamental in this process.

I’m especially pleased to hear about the move away from the counterproductive efforts of most “diversity” efforts toward a focus on diversity of thinking. However, I’m curious how deep that research goes. In my experience, the degree to which most people understand diversity is extremely shallow. Really digging into this becomes a ultimately philosophical endeavour. A question for myself at this point is, how deep do we go in this process for the exercise to still pay / when is it too much? I expect the answer can be found in how holistic / broad / purpose-related the organisation and its leaders are able to view things.

Another question I’m working on is how individuals retain their “sovereignty” within an organisational context? What degree of agreement is essential to ensure effective co-operation, without stifling sovereignty and with it diversity?

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