First published on LinkedIn on May 20, 2022
In this article, I share my observation of an #inclusive-leadership program that went off track. I analyse the #cultural-differences that turned a #DEI (Diversity-Equity-Inclusion) session into a drama. Then I make a few suggestions on how to handle this highly sensitive topic in a hopefully wise and efficient manner.
Recently, I facilitated an in-person leadership development seminar for one of my European clients, a listed company, leader in its industry. The participants were top executives, most of them C-level from all over Europe. My client had invited an American expert, consultant from a famous consulting firm to facilitate a presentation /workshop on inclusive leadership. I was happy to attend.
The consultant started with some data on the men/women ratio within the company at different levels of the hierarchy and some references of studies showing that #diversity is a proven leverage for performance. (I will address this topic in an upcoming article). Then came some problematic statements, which triggered a strong backlash from the participants. Sometimes events turn into a case study. It was definitely one of these situations. Let’s start by highlighting three major areas of discussion / bones of contention.
BONES OF CONTENTION
Trusting the stakeholders to promote more women at top positions vs positive discrimination
Figures showed that within the company very few women held positions at top level. Among the participants of the leadership seminar women represented only a handful of persons. It was striking and showed that something needed to be done for a more balanced situation within the company. Participants asked how to recruit or promote more women.
A discussion about quotas followed. The consultant stated that from a personal stand she favoured #positive-discrimination despite the fact that it was not the official policy of the company. The consultant was caught off guard when one of the few C-level women attending testified that it was obvious to her and to many in the company that being a woman was the main reason why she had been promoted to board-member of a subsidiary. Though she was highly qualified and engaged in her job, she knew of several other male candidates who were more fit for the job than she was. The resulting suspicion on her holding her position was a hurdle she would have preferred not to have.
Active inclusion vs respect of private life
The consultant complained that in many European Countries you could not get real statistics, as surveys (even voluntary) on gender identity, sexual orientations or religion are illegal. She stated that for many in the youngest generation, gender fluidity was something significant, and that if the company didn’t pay attention to have gender-fluid candidates feel welcomed, they would head off for other companies. The company would likely lose the best candidates. Several in the audience were shocked. They replied that the sexual preference of candidates and employees was none of their business and that they were willing to hire and promote the best for their professional expertise, regardless of their intimate life.
Diversity vs Combatting white male dominance
The consultant promoted the virtue of diversity. She also stated that she was invited in the program as the CEO had made it clear that one of his primary goals was to enhance #diversity in all regions and businesses. Some participants (mostly the ones in technical areas) showed some reluctance and questioned the cost/benefit of implementing such goals as they already had more than busy schedules and didn’t want to have additional KPI (Key Performance Indexes) to handle. The consultant’s response fell like a knife: “Do you find it normal that there are so many white males among you?”. It triggered some combative responses. One branch Director stated that diversity was indeed important. In his highly technical line of business, most of his staff members came from Asia or North Africa. They were extremely good professionals in their technical expertise. At the same time, part of the business required constant communication with governmental officials in Europe. As for this purpose, most of his staff from non-European origins didn’t have sufficient mastery of European languages and #cultural-codes. He was desperately trying to hire some seasoned professionals from European background. Diversity would likely mean for him to hire more white European men. This resulted in a dialogue of the deaf with the consultant.
Throughout Human history, human beings have been confronted to the same stakes, among which how to survive in a hostile environment, how to deal with ageing or how to deal with inequalities. Each group has brought specific answers that are now embedded in their cultures. In my view the drama that I have just related was largely fuelled by differences in cultures, rather than by resistance to change. Let’s discover how.
Geert Hofstede, Dutch psychologist and pioneer in #intercultural-studies found out 5 core dimensions that explain differences in cultures. He presented them in his famous book “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind”, (McGraw Hill; 3rd edition-May 24, 2010) first published in 1999. (A sixth dimension has since been added to the model).
Masculinity - Femininity
One of the dimensions that explains difference in cultures and how people think, feel and act is what he named Masculinity - Femininity. According to his definition “The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, Femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. » (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/models/national-culture/) Please note that here the words “masculine” and “feminine” are meant to describe a specific dimension of cultural dynamics and do not refer to the current debate on gender.
In a feminine culture expected roles for women and men tend to be very much alike, whereas in a masculine culture, roles that are attributed to men and women are significantly different. This translates in all areas of life whether in connection with family, school, army, politics or management. Though every single person is unique, what is important to consider is the contrast between different cultural medians at a specific time. These medians evolve over time in a rather slow process that usually takes generations. Obviously, this dimension of masculinity-femininity is currently undergoing major changes in many countries.
It is interesting to note that most of the current #gender-equality movement developing in the USA and reaching now Europe comes from a traditionally rather “masculine culture” according to Hofstede studies, that is with traditionally strongly differentiated roles between men and women. Indeed, the Hofstede masculinity index is 62 for USA, 52 for the United Arab Emirates, 43 for France and 5 for Sweden (2010 figures).
Universalism versus particularism
Different cultures have also different understandings of the place of the individual in the society. Fons Trompenaars, another famous scholar in the field of cultural studies, highlighted the difference between cultures according to the universalism-particularism dimension. In universalist cultures the same laws and rules apply to everyone in order to ensure fairness, whereas in particularistic cultures what is specific to the situation and who is involved in a situation are taken into account in order to ensure fairness.
In many #Equity movements, #meritocracy is considered as a myth that doesn’t match reality. Fairness is understood as providing each one with fair opportunities so that they can express their full potential. In order to counterbalance any social disadvantages different resources may be allocated different people. From a universalist viewpoint, there is no such thing as positive discrimination.
We could argue that for the purpose of granting all minority groups a fair access to high positions in the society, the American culture is currently mitigating its universalist culture with a particularistic one.
I will not open here the debate on #gender-quotas. I just want to highlight the impact of #perceptions on stakeholders. Despite the fact that women in high positions in male predominant companies are often more competent than their male counterparts because of the implicit higher level of the bar, they might be perceived otherwise. In the seminar that I described the top executive woman testified of what can be a deleterious effect when people in the company believe that decisions are based on a non-official quota system, in other words based on political reasons. As it showed, this can lead to self-deprecation for the beneficiaries and to a high degree of frustration, not only for the majority groups, but also for the ones who belong to other minority groups that would not be taken care of the same way.
Individualism vs Collectivism
Individualism is another key dimension of Hofstede’s survey. Individualist cultures focus on the “I” whereas collectivist cultures focus on the “We”. The United States rank very high (91) on the Individualism index.
In my view there is a direct connection with the outlines of #Inclusive-leadership as formulated in the American culture. It states that everyone should be able to express and live fully their identity at the workplace and that everyone should be able to express their true self without feeling restrained. The collective richness will be enhanced through the public expression of individual differences. In the process the border between private and public life has disappeared.
On the contrary, in more collectivist cultures, #diversity-management aims at cherishing in the first place what is shared by all members of the group (corporate values, vision of the group, professional expertise). The collective focuses on what is in common beyond individual differences. Diversity management aims then at guarantying that everyone be treated on the same fair basis, whatever their differences. The group brings support to its members in return for the respect of some social and professional norms. Differences relating to the private sphere are considered as irrelevant to the job. This model is to be found in different parts of Europe and used to be at the core of the French model.
The two models aim both at more fairness. However, they are based on pretty different views of how to reach it. We could call it the competition between an #Equity model and #Equality model. In the seminar that I described above the debate between Inclusive Leadership and Diversity Management turned into a clash.
Now the big question is: Could companies overcome these philosophical and #intercultural conflicts and find a way to enhance fairness & motivation while keeping focused on their business? I believe so. The answer may be found in changing the angle and understanding some #cognitive-biases that are at stake here.
In her book “Bias interrupted - Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good” (Harvard Business Review Press, November 2021), Joan C. Williams, Harvard Researcher and leader in documenting and fighting biases in the workplace shows how cognitive biases impact diversity in the workplace. Though Joan C. Williams analysed the workplace in the USA and her main recommendations are valuable for the American market, we can make easily the link with cultural filters such as the ones discussed earlier.
#Cognitive-biases constitute a powerful leverage to question corporate practices in the field of diversity and performance. Bringing some of these biases to awareness may cause some surprise because, most of the time, managers are not aware of the biases when they hire, manage, support or promote.
For instance, a company might hire a balanced number of men and women at entry level, but after a few years see most predominantly men in top position. A frequent data-proven bias demonstrated by Joan C. Williams is to unwillingly evaluate men’s and women’s performance based on different criteria. For instance, a same trait of over-assertiveness could be interpreted for a man as resulting from his fighting spirit and for a woman as resulting from her aggressiveness. Another bias could be to unwillingly give more front-line projects to men and more backstage projects to women. Obviously if the frontline projects bring more visibility, recognition and network, it explains easily why women would be less promoted than men. In my opinion, it is fair to say that these two biases are more likely to be active in more “masculine” country or company cultures where expected roles for men and women are distinct.
Other biases are linked to social background. Joan C. Williams made the experiment of sending two identical resumés to elite law firms (same name, photos, education and experience). The only thing that differed was the hobbies: polo, sailing and classical music for some and soccer and country music for others. The polo resumé was 12 times more likely to get a callback because these candidates were seen as more competent and better fit (Bias interrupted, page 82-83). Just because in-groups tend to reproduce themselves without being aware of it.
Each culture has its own cluster of biases because they are part of their history and shared social construct. In some European countries some specific biases are active, such as the ones against senior candidates in France who are often considered as less agile and harder to manage.
Bringing active biases to awareness will enable to spot when and where reality contradicts official corporate values or principles of management. It will also help top management in making decisions about desired strategic cultural outcomes and to launch effective programs of #cultural-transformation.
Overcoming cognitive biases may also constitute a way to reconcile different cultural interpretations of diversity around common grounds. As Joan C. Williams shows, correcting the biases helps meritocracy to move forward. Not only is it beneficial for everyone from the in-groups or out-groups, it is also pretty motivating. The approach is pragmatic and efficient. In my view, this may help circumvent the major pitfalls of both models: on the one hand #meritocracy that may be spoiled by unconscious cultural and historical biases, and on the other hand, #affirmative-actions that reduce human beings to their belonging to a category and may cause different groups of people to antagonise.
As for any #cultural-change, one needs to have a clear vision and a strategy that takes into account the impact of change on all stake-holders. Mapping the stakeholders and understanding how they will feel, think and react is a prerequisite. Agreement and ownership by stakeholders are key factors if you look for a real change beyond numbers. The process as much as the goals will be all the more efficient that the potential contrast with the current corporate culture and country cultures will be fully addressed.
The mindset of the people in charge and of all contributors to this culture change is of utmost importance for a successful transformation. Here are some suggestions as a conclusion to this article:
Consider the topic of diversity and inclusion as a stake of cultural change. Work all the steps as for any other cultural change. If you want to get everyone onboard and cooperate, be driven by human values, business stakes and performance rather than ideology.
Take into account cultural factors. The topic of diversity and inclusion is highly impacted and has great impact on culture, politics and society as well as business and management. Diversity is also about accepting diversity of mindsets and cultures and dealing with them.
Be explicit about your vision of fairness and how you want it to translate into reality. Be open about the advantages and drawbacks of your vision, and why the choice you made is a strategic one for the company.
And, as important:
Do not inquire the topic of diversity and inclusion from a point of resentment. Do not play the ones against the others or some groups against the others, as it would probably lead to a drama triangle (persecutor, victim, saver). Instead drive change from a point of love, for the members of the in-group and the out-groups alike.