Diversity training

stitch up or surgery?

Richard Lehnerdt
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In South Africa, the last few months have been volatile from both an economic and political perspective. The dream of a rainbow nation seems to be teetering on the edge of a storm that is building behind dark clouds. Whether the storm hits or the sun breaks through and we see blue skies, is very dependent on how we react, respond and act in the face of uncertainty and underlying conflict.

In the mid-nineties we thought we excised a boil. We embraced one another through the World Cup, cried and forgave through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and embraced diversity. Diversity Training was the buzzword in corporate culture and we held hands and spoke of Ubuntu and peace.

20 some years later what is happening and how do we ensure the storm does not hit? Do we go back to Diversity Training? Or are we too far down the line?

The reality, according to Peter Bregman (Psychology Today), “diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it”.

So what should we do that would be an improvement on diversity training? The reality is, we live in a diverse society and companies need to find a way to get people from different cultural, racial and religious backgrounds to work together.

We need to think beyond the concept of diversity and look at the components that make up individual behaviour. One of these components is emotional intelligence and leadership is another.

Leadership is very impactful when an immediate manager is emotionally intelligent,  as can be seen in the following statistics:

  • 80% of turnover is directly related to unsatisfactory relationships with one’s manager (Saratoga Institute)
  • The number one reason people leave their jobs is because of a “bad boss.” (Gallup Organisation)
  • Poorly managed work groups are on average 50% less productive and 44% less profitable than well managed ones. (Gallup Organisation)

This is where emotional intelligence and diversity play a role. When leaders exhibit emotional intelligence, they have the skills to develop positive relationships and when those relationships motivate staff, the organisation benefits. This is why building effective teams through emotional intelligence and leadership skills is vitally important as it means that your managers will be able to focus on individuals and their skills and competencies and not to race, culture or religion (or any other -ism). Four components of emotional intelligence and diversity, which can be seen at work in the behaviour of effective leaders are:

  • Self awareness:
    • The ability to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses and work on self-improvement. This enables a leader to be approachable rather than taking a, “this is how we do it” approach.
  • Self governance:
    • Leaders who engage employees are able to manage their emotions rather than be controlled by them. Instead of venting and expressing anger, they acknowledge their feelings and those of their employees. Because of their ability to remain calm, employees feel a sense of security.
  • Intercultural literacy:
    • This is when leaders develop strong and positive relationships with employees because they can ‘read’ them and understand their behaviour. This means they can respond appropriately and with empathy.
  • Social architecting:
    • Finally, leaders with emotional intelligence know how to build inclusive environments where people can grow. They give honest feedback and are able to deal with problems and conflicts effectively.

The relationship leaders build with employees is key to engagement and leaders with emotional intelligence have what it takes to build powerfully good ones.

On the other side of the curve, employees can also adopt techniques that can help create better office relationships:

  • Speak up
  • Don’t look to be offended
  • Treat everyone politely and fairly
  • Report truly discriminatory behaviour to HR or your chain of command (only as a last resort!)

The concepts of diversity have evolved and so must our approach. In the past the focus was looking at the differences and understanding how to overcome those. We are a diverse enough nation to know the differences and know at least something of each other’s history and culture.

So if we keep focusing on diversity we are only highlighting diversity.

By shifting our focus to common ground, generic aspects in each of us that we need to work more efficiently and effectively, aspects that we can understand that will help us communicate better with others and vice versa, we are focusing on the similar and not the different. This positive approach creates an environment of learning and growing instead of drawing attention to that which makes us different.

The reality is that organisations in South Africa operate in a multicultural and multiethnic society and people interact with differentiating characteristics such as work styles, mental models and even personality types and managing this diverse environment can be challenging.

“A diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive, foster creativity, and guide business strategies. Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, and new products, and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.” Forbes insights.

Look at the diagram on the right. Most training interventions approach diversity training from the outside in. Taking the cultural locus aspects and feeding them back to the organisational locus. But this is a stitch approach (closing the wound without exploring what’s underneath). It’s where we take external factors, explain what they are all about and try to feed them back to the internal mind, explaining as opposed to changing behaviour from the inside out. When we understand ourselves, how we communicate and how we need to communicate with others, when we approach surgically - find out the secrets underneath (it takes delicacy and sensitivity) - and when we have a better understanding of ourselves, we will gain a better understanding of the diversity of the country in which we live.

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