Originally this post was published on 17/06/2020 at LinkedIn.
The goal of this article is to explore how we exclude and include, actively or passively, during the hiring process and afterwards, and how our behavioural choices are representative of our purpose: a pattern of conscious and hidden commitments, like ambitions, responsibilities and fears (Berger, 2012; Cavanagh, 2016; Kegan & Lahey, 2009). I write about how we silence and get silenced and provide some suggestions for increasing our capacity for inclusion.
In a Selection Process: Passive Inclusion and Active Exclusion?
Today, shortlisting candidates means not only considering their qualifications and experiences, but also how they could contribute to the desired diversity in that organisation and/or a team. As employers, we decide whom we want to include to address our future challenges (in line with our anti-discrimination policy), and we proactively exclude the rest of the applicants. We look for unique attributes, in some cases for “just enough and not too much” competence and, at the same time, screen for a match to the cultural norms of our organisation. We evaluate candidates against our social norms, not particularly considering what potential negative consequences (e.g. groupthink or lack of desire to challenge status quo) those norms have been producing in the organisation.
For example, we say we value entrepreneurship, diversity and creativity; and then note that the key requirement for the role is a history of smart career decisions and highly successful tenures. We say we want people who can take risks and learn from failures and then we proactively exclude those who tried and failed. We are trying to minimise risk: want just enough of what we ask for (and what we can handle) but not too much.
As job seekers, we want to satisfy one of our core needs for security and belonging (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and we do our best to show how we relate to those who can afford to hire: we listen to the advice on how to write a great resume and how to answer the questions during the interview to increase the likelihood of being noticed and selected. We hope the selection panel will notice and overcome their discomfort when tuning into our accent and will approve our “dress for success” outfit. Because at the end of the day their “career” page says they are inclusive and promote bringing your whole self to work. Except it seems there is a threshold of “professionalism” one needs to pass, before getting an opportunity to show their true self.
We sometimes do not realise that it is us, who in a process of building our personal brand and positioning ourselves to a particular role, in essence, reduce ourselves to a list of bullet points that align to a job title and a position description; the bullet points that we will be held accountable to, the drive and perseverance we said we had. And yet, we don’t want to be reduced to our job title and suppress who we actually are or, rather, who we are continuously becoming.
After Completion of the Hiring Process: Active Inclusion and Passive Exclusion?
Organisations are keen to increase diversity of their workforce and support equal opportunities. They provide employees with resources for development and networking through corporate memberships in the organisations who promote, for example, women participation and advancement in traditionally male dominated industries. It allows women to safely share and learn about the challenges other working females face, to support each other and garner collective intelligence to create business cases for advancing women in the workplace. Supportive men, in that context, are seen as sponsors for promoting gender equality.
Female only leadership development and mentoring programs separate them from non-females they work with. This separation approach can be seen as defensive (Jarzabkowski et al., 2013), as it only offers a temporary relief from the tensions experienced. Organisational tensions do not reside in the parts of the system (employees who are considered diverse) but rather in the relations between the system parts.
Talent Management programs stress the importance of high performance and focus on (subjective) identifying of individuals as talents and leaving non-talents to find their own way forward. It is very much reinforced by employees’ desire to be recognised and being called “early potential” or “high potential” makes us feel good about ourselves and the extra efforts we put in.
Talent, expertise and potential are assumed to reside in individuals rather than something that unfolds as people interact in addressing challenges (Cavanagh, 2018). As a result, most development programs are designed to uplift the capability of each rather than on the interactions across that bring the best in both or many, depending on the number of participants in those interactions. Just because you know how, for example, to suspend judgement and actively listen to another person’s perspective as part of engaging in a dialogue, it doesn’t mean that the generations who were taught how to debate will be open to do that too.
Suppression to Appear Inclusive Sabotages Real Inclusion
Another example of passively addressing organisational tensions is asking people to suppress (Jarzabkowski, Lê, & Van de Ven, 2013) what they think or feel in favour of political correctness. For example, I know a leader who admitted struggling to understanding foreign accents and actively excludes some expats from the recruitment or promotion process. He would not acknowledge it publicly. Not talking about it prevents him from gaining a deeper understanding of this pattern of behavior; it could be that the hiring manager feels incompetent asking many times to repeat what the other party said or is afraid that the evident real difficulty of communication will prevent the candidate from successfully collaborating within and across the teams. Research shows that managing employees with non-native accents adds to ego depletion (Kim, Roberson, Russo, & Briganti, 2019), as it requires higher levels of self-control and therefore uses up more of our self-regulatory resource. But we don’t feel it is ok to talk about it.
If there is no opportunity to openly discuss the above in one’s organisation, it cannot be resolved. If discussed, a possible resolution could be, for example, offering elocution lessons and other support once that person is hired. Moreover, anecdotally, leaders are very likely to listen to complaints about how their non-native speaking staff pick wrong words or don’t get their point across, but less likely to provide sensitive feedback to those employees and also the access to resources relevant to address those challenges. Instead, they make an easy decision to not include them as potentials.
If due to political correctness, we feel silenced to say what we think, we are not going to address tensions that are bubbling up just under the surface and getting in the way of true inclusion. Several leaders have shared with me, in private, that they have asked their recruiters to only send female resumes or only to look for people who are native Mandarin speakers and have just recently arrived from China. They feel voicing it publicly might cause trouble for them. They do not recognise that their efforts are in line with Ashby’s law (Boisot & McKelvey, 2011): it is an attempt to adapt by increasing the complexity of their teams to match the complexity of the environment, so they can meet their challenges.
If we don’t feel safe to talk about diversity unless we have lived experience or a relevant qualification backing our right to share our opinion, we will continue to be polite and supportive in public and carry on pursuing different agenda.
Our pattern of commitments and our capacity for inclusion
It seems that we, individually and collectively, focus on solving one problem at a time and choose to ignore the interdependencies, due to convenience or inertia. We simplify, so we can feel we can be more in control of masterminding a solution on part of a bigger problem rather than looking beyond the obvious; it gives us a relief, a sense of progress that we can show others. When in reality, we are just perpetuating the same vicious cycles and not paying attention to what truly shapes our behaviours. We say we want diversity and inclusion (D&I), but we don’t seem to be able to hold the tension of striving for both, simultaneously.
It would be comforting to know that there is some elusive best practice (Snowden & Boone, 2007) that an organisation must follow, or show they follow, in relation to D&I. In reality, best practices are hard to implement practically: people are complex adaptive systems who have an agency to decide how they are going to go about things, as individuals and teams. We know what we are expected to say, so we will say it, we might even believe what we say in the moment: we say what we want to be true, from the place of who we think we would like to become and what we think we are expected to value.
But then we end up doing something the opposite of what we said. Unbeknown to us we are following our hidden commitments powered by our assumptions about ourselves, others and the world (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). For example, we say we need to create an inclusive environment where “everybody should feel valued and respected, have access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute their perspectives and talents to improve their organisation” (Diversity Council Australia, 2020), but at the same time we commit to our monthly productivity targets and strongly believe we cannot afford to slow down to reflect on our tensions in order to address them and speed up (Davis & Atkinson, 2010).
We include when it serves our purpose and exclude when it serves our purpose. Our purpose is deeply influenced by our perspective. This equally applies to other units of analysis: if I believe this land is for me to enjoy and resources are scarce, I will limit the entrance of those who could drain “my” limited resources. When I recover, then I will invite “others”, so they can increase our GDP and contribute towards my comfortable retirement.
As Jasmine Doak, the VP - HR for APAC at Orica said earlier today, “we need to keep our organisation curious to make sure that decisions we are going to make during this crisis will not have unintended negative consequences in relation to D&I”.
I can think of several things we can do to become better at noticing how our patterns of commitments and our assumptions drive our behaviour and how to engage productively in conversations on contested issues (please add your own suggestions in comments):
Firstly, pay attention when we are passively or actively excluding, and when we are passively or actively including. Consider assigning a rotating observer role to give us feedback during and after meetings on how we are performing against our inclusion goals. We might be surprised that, for example, men talk about inclusivity and don’t notice that women are silent.
Secondly, spot polarized responses in our organisation that cause, for example, value conflicts. It often happens when interdependencies between the goals create tensions and how by, for example, excessively aligning with one pole of the paradox (“we need to streamline our operation and cut costs”), generates opposition with the other pole (“we need to double production”) (Smith & Lewis, 2011).
Thirdly, take time to create an environment that allows others to share unpopular views in a respectful way (Edmondson et al., 2004). Otherwise, we cannot:
Fourthly, teaching how to truly listen and suspend one’s perspective, in order to hear others’ perspective, will lay the foundations to engage in a generative reflective dialogue (Lawrence et al., 2019) that allows to co-create novel solutions.
Fifthly, consider using the Immunity to Change model (Kegan and Lahey, 2009), at an individual and at a team level, to identify what we do to jeopardize our espoused goal to increase inclusion and what assumptions we have that drive behaviours opposite to what we say we want to achieve. Then test those assumptions.
Moving through these steps will expose what is at risk for us and what silences us, what vicious cycles we, our team and our organisation fall into and what patterns hold our complex system in its current state.
Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss it further.
Diversity Council Australia (2020). Beyond Diversity Towards Inclusion. Retrieved from https://www.dca.org.au/topics/inclusion
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