diversityAnthropologist Kate Fox in her wonderful book, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, makes the following point:

The principal effect of globalization, as far as I can tell, has been an increase in nationalism and tribalism, a proliferation of struggles for independence, devolution and self-determination and a resurgence of concern about ethnicity and cultural identity in almost all parts of the world, including the so-called United Kingdom.

Several years ago TomorrowToday was involved in some research done through the Education 2020 initiative at the East West Center, Hawaii. Part of the research, as summarized by TomorrowToday Associate, Prof Nick Barker, looked at the impact of globalization. Nick distilled the impact into four basic insights, insights that we have made frequent use of in various TomorrowToday frameworks.

These insights in reference to the impact of globalization were:

  1. An increasing interdependence
  2. Increasing complexity
  3. Increasing non-linear change
  4. Increasing emphasis on difference

The first three insights were hardly a surprise however the fourth certainly raised a few eyebrows. It seemed counter-intuitive; surely one would expect an increase in ‘sameness’ in an increasingly connected and ‘small’ world?

Apparently not.

In our international work across a broad swath of geographies, cultures and industries, we have found this (emphasis on difference) to be the case. In recent years there has been a sudden and urgent incorporation of ‘diversity’ and in particular, what it means to lead diversity, into business school curriculum. It has become a ‘hot topic’ and one driven by a real need for answers at the corporate coalface. Leaders have been left exposed by the emergence of this reality and are finding that they are ill equipped to lead difference. Across the board leaders are generally floundering in the face of this subtle and not-so-subtle challenge.

At a recent executive leadership programme hosted by London Business School for a multi-national client, I was speaking on this exact topic in a module that was located in the picturesque Vevey, Switzerland. In an adaptive challenge exercise that required authentic connection, one participant (a Swiss national), chose to connect authentically by moving around the room warmly shaking everyone’s hand. In the debrief I asked him, given his modus operandi, what he would have done had there been a Muslim woman present for whom this type of greeting may have been inappropriate. He paused and gave the question some serious thought before replying: “I would have done exactly the same”. That was not the answer I was expecting! On inquiring why this would be the case and reaffirming that he understood the implications of such an act, his answer was that, “…well she would have seen my sincerity”.

I had some news for him: sincerity is not enough! It might get you so far but effective leading of difference needs more than sincerity. It seems that the ‘difference agenda’ has snuck-up on leaders unawares; the ‘old way’ of doing things no longer works – or certainly no longer works as well as it once did. In many instances the ‘old way’ of doing things offends yet leaders seem short of responses and their experience hasn’t prepared then for leading in this new world. Having done extensive work in China there are numerous stories (some my own!) that I could share; stories of ignorant behaviour that could have been averted with greater awareness, sensitivity and a willingness to learn.

The added problem is that the traditional source for learning leadership embraced by most leaders (formal business school programmes) is itself short of adequate responses. As TomorrowToday we have had numerous experiences and exposure to the approach taken by various renowned business schools in their attempts to address this need. What we have seen lacks imagination, courage and has attempted to address what is certainly a ‘head and heart’ issue from the familiar comfort of only the cognitive realm. Inadequate time is given to what is a complex, personal and challenging issue. It is one that demands a certain exposure of bias and prejudice, and a careful and considered rearranging of the pieces following the dismantling of such. It is tough work that is often not wanted or desired (by those subjected to the learning) and yet is essential for any leader serious about being Future Fit.

This is not a topic that can be dealt with in three-and-a-half hours, or squared away by a lecture on diversity followed by a self-congratulatory tick of that box before moving on. Yet, that is exactly how it is being approached. Many of these leadership programmes are held in exotic and diverse locations that invite discovery and engagement. Such a context offers a wonderful ‘playground’ in which to explore and engage in diversity, yet any contact with this context is highly sanitised, done as a passive observer and in a regulated, risk-free and comfortable manner. Opportunities for rich learning are sacrificed on the altar of keeping the delegates happy and comfortable.

This happens all too frequently to be regarded as an isolated case and approach. I have even been party to the client urging the educators to stretch, push and create disruption amongst the delegates only to be met with an anaemic and weak response of a fail-safe programme. We need a change, and quickly.

I am involved in a senior leaders development programme with Spar, South Africa. They have got it spectacularly right without even knowing just how well they are doing in this area. In this programme delegates are exposed to a full cross-cultural ‘emersion’ experience, one that is intentionally designed to create the disequilibrium so necessary for meaningful learning. Following the emersion experience there is an excellent debrief that further facilitates the significant mental and behavioural shifts amongst the participants allowing them to translate it all into their leadership practice. The experience is over several days and the learnings are usually life-changing. It has that kind of impact!

Doing it right

Learning how to lead difference can be done. However, if it is to be done well and achieve significant impact, a bolder more imaginative pedagogy will need to be deployed. That is the responsibility of the educators who will need to inform their clients that they might not like what is coming (after all who enjoys discomfort and disruptive learning) but to trust them (the educator) and the process.

This is a leadership issue that is not going to go away quietly. It will have to be addressed and the challenge is that there can be no ‘A,B,C’ type of approach to the issue. Each situation is different (no pun intended) and this is one leadership issue that has to be completely contextualized and shaped by the specific diversity challenge being encountered and by the desired outcomes.

‘Difference’ is a multi-faceted challenge: generational, cultural, gender, class and personality being the more obvious. These all take on different guises both inside and outside of your organisation. As a leader, it is your responsibility to understand these differences and be able to harness the diversity on offer for the obvious benefits to be gained by doing so. Research has shown that harnessing diversity improves innovation, decision-making; it leads to greater engagement and contributes to building resilience.

As a leader, here would be seven questions for your consideration and perhaps to be entertained amongst your team as you strive to ensure that you are Future Fit in the area of leading difference:

  1. Were you to ‘map’ the diversity you are encountering within the scope of your business, what would that look like?
  2. How does this picture resemble / differ from that of 10-15 years ago?
  3. How could the ‘experience’ around the (leadership) table be an asset and / or an impediment to what it will take to fully engage the diversity challenge/s you have identified?
  4. What is your biggest gap or challenge when it comes to engaging and leading difference?
  5. What are you doing about that – and are your current initiatives really making a difference?
  6. What might you be missing through what you are currently measuring?
  7. What are the questions you should be asking, but aren’t, when it comes to diversity?

The very real and tangible benefits of harnessing diversity ought to serve as ample motivation to ensure that you, and those entrusted with leadership within your organisation, are both willing and capable of engaging and leading diversity.

Speak to us if you would like more information on unlocking the organisational benefits of diversity for your organisation.

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