Turkey votes 52:48 and President (now almost for life) Erdogan claims that 4% margin as the ‘will of the people’ and a ‘mandate’ for fundamental constitutional change. Remind you of anything? Remoaners all, shut up and get with the programme, the people have spoken. And if you dare argue, even if you are a Judge, you are just “Enemies of the people”. (Daily Mail 4th November 2016)
There is a terrible danger in this weasel worded claim of a ‘mandate’. It pretends to be democracy, but it is in fact both undemocratic and a refusal to acknowledge the diversity of views, opinions or people. Majorities appear seductive. But on their own they are not democracy, because democracy, like love, is an endless journey, an unending conversation, a process not an event. In America they don’t talk about the Perfect Union, rather, in the pre-amble to the Constitution, it says “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” As President Obama put it in his famous speech on March 18th during the 2008 Presidential race, the goal of his campaign was “to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
Majorities certainly set the direction of travel. But once you’ve won that majority what do you do with those who didn’t vote for it? Brexiteers can no more claim the “people” than we who have campaigned and made such advances in creating a more tolerant society can claim that anyone who expresses the least anxiety about the speed of change or the volume of migration or the creation of gay marriage is “just a bigoted woman” © Gordon Brown.
To those of us who work on diversity in organisations this is quite fundamental. Leaders of companies, Universities or NHS Trusts should rightly make statements of intent and of Values which stake out the direction of travel towards greater diversity and opportunities for all in their organisation. But in so doing they must take into account how they are going to engage those who feel uneasy about it to embrace that agenda. And you don’t do that by just pretending to be the Political Easter Bunny like Theresa May this weekend and blithely summoning up some fuzzy combination of Christian values (oh yes and those lived “as well as by people of other faiths or none”) and our “shared interests, our shared ambitions” – clearly neither of which are shared – and think that will somehow do the trick. What leaders need to do is to create an atmosphere where dissent and unease can be freely expressed, then listen sincerely to it, actually hear it and engage with it.
That doesn’t mean staff get to spew prejudice. I said ‘unease’, not bigotry. But it does mean that when we work to remove the barriers that we know exist to female and bme talent (note: there are more people called John, David and Andrew in the top 297 jobs in FTSE 100 companies than women or bme people) we own up that this will introduce more highly skilled competition into the market for jobs and promotion. And we need to listen to the people who feel that will damage them. Yes, it will make opportunity tougher for less talented men and white people. But there is a dividend. And the dividend is that more diversity, well managed will produce higher performance for everybody. (See for instance McKinsey “Diversity Matters http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters
In practice, to deal with this situation means doing two basic pieces of work. Firstly, you need to discover exactly what your people feel about the existing diversity in your organisation (or lack of it) and how they feel about changing that. Each company, each sector, each intellectual discipline will have its particular diversity story. There may (there probably will) be bias in what the organsation thinks makes a ‘good leader’, a ‘great’ professor; there may (probably will) be biases in the processes of advertising jobs and recruiting. And so on. And when leaders do this and ask staff what they feel, do please bear in mind that, for instance (and I give this example because I know only too well that it’s true) not all gay people think alike! Nor all bme people, nor all women. It has always been a matter of some amazement to me that Waitrose (or Lidl – ok hands up!) knows everything about me, yet staff surveys continue to tell us absurd things about staff based solely on their membership of large groups – “bme people don’t like the café” etc. Why don’t we apply some of the sophistication of retail customer analysis to understanding what our staff feel as individuals?
So, when you ask the questions and analyse the results, be complex. To do that we set great store by verbatim answers to open questions. (http://diversitybydesign.co.uk/what-we-offer/insight-understanding-whats-going-staff-words/). Because the language matters. It tells you about feelings, about nuance. You can adduce if themes are coming back from groups, which will usually be because, as a group, they are experiencing prejudice, but you can also understand the grain of the replies from them as individuals. This creates space for expressions of anxiety and doubt.
The second thing to ensure is that any rationale for diversity in a company, University or Trust is debated, argued about and framed rigorously in terms of the benefit of the core purpose of the organisation. Not just diversity for its own sake, but diversity for a purpose. Because if staff are convinced that, given processes are fair, putting together diverse teams will benefit the company and sustain its success in the longer term, they are far more likely to embrace it, even when they appear to lose out personally.
If we drive opposition underground, we foment the narrative that what is in fact the story of power over centuries (that of white men) is the unspoken, the forbidden. That they are somehow the victims, disallowed from expressing their views in the face of an onslaught of politically correct women, gays and black people. The rhetoric of UKIP exactly mirrors this and added to their momentum, as a great piece of research by Professor Gill Valentine one of the PVCs at Sheffield University underlined recently. http://livedifference.group.shef.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The-Privatisation-of-Prejudice-equality-legislation-and-political-correctness-in-the-UK-difference-final-1.pdf
Surrounded by tolerance the intolerant do not get more tolerant. They get more intolerant. So, we have to engage, not dismiss. It’s no good claiming our mandate from the self-evident goodness of greater equality and fairness, if some people feel that it disadvantages them.
President Obama again in that extraordinary speech, while he was talking about what happens when the country doesn’t hear justified black anger, reminds us of the care we must take to embrace the other view where the interests of the citizens, or in our case the staff, are not at one:
“That anger (‘of blacks of that generation who surmounted obstacles to succeed in life but often remain bitter and angry about their experiences with racism’) may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table…occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. ……That anger is not always productive…it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
So, we need to acknowledge difference, rather than claim a ‘majority’ for diversity, and argue and negotiate until we can agree to follow a common path. Companies (or Universities or Trusts) are not democracies, but they are joint endeavours. For diversity to drive success, it must be embraced by the whole company. Not just enforced by ‘mandate’.