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Simon Fanshawe

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Hearing rather than solving is the new approach to creating inclusion


Despite many organisations putting time and effort being into improving diversity and inclusion, research shows that many people still feel excluded. Could the simple approach of listening attentively to our people, without looking straight to fixing problems, be an effective solution?

One of the main challenges that affects those of us who help companies and organisations achieve more diversity among their staff, exec teams and boards is that with all the billions of dollars and pounds (although not roubles and Saudi riyals) that have been spent on diversity, the change has been so slow and so small.

And it’s not just about the lack of a shift in the numbers of staff from under-represented groups – although there are still more men in the top 300 jobs in the FTSE 100 than women and black and Asian people. It’s also staff experience at work that remains frequently unacceptable.

Lack of inclusion: the statistics

  • A You Gov poll for the TUC in 2015 discovered that nearly a third of people (29%) have been bullied at work (women more likely to be victims than men). In nearly three-quarters (72%) of cases the bullying is carried out by a manager and more than one in three (36%) people who report being bullied at work leave their job because of it.

  • This year, business psychologists Pearn Kandola did a poll of 1400, in which a shocking 52% said they had witnessed an act of racism at work. A third of them said they had not reported it to their employer. 

  • Stonewall reports that one in five (19%) lesbian and gay employees have experienced verbal bullying from colleagues, customers or service users because of their sexual orientation. One in eight (13%) don’t not feel confident reporting homophobic bullying in their workplace. And a quarter (26%) are not at all open to colleagues about their sexual orientation

  • The NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard 2017 Report stated that it is still the case that white staff in the NHS (across all grades) who have been shortlisted are 1.6 times more likely than black and minority ethnic (BME) staff to be appointed even once shortlisted. And the proportion of BME staff in mid to senior management was still only 10.4% compared with 16.3% in the workforce as a whole. It remains twice as likely that BME staff, compared to white staff, do not believe there are equal opportunities for career development and progression

  • A YouGov Omnibus poll in 2014 revealed that 45% of GB employees do not feel valued by their employer. This figure rises to 49% of those surveyed aged 45-54

Managers focus too much on providing solutions

Whatever the amounts of time and money that have been invested in diversity, the data tell us that too many staff are not feeling included and many actively excluded. So we need to find some new approaches.

At Diversity by Design we are often asked to help organisations tackle this and we (particularly my business partner, Roy Hutchins) have focused on this and have developed, through experimentation, an approach that is delivering results.

Its emphasis is not on managers developing solutions right away (problem solved!) but on them actually listening and really hearing their staff before they get anywhere near developing a response.

We listen but we seldom hear.

Managers are trained and used to getting things done. They solve problems. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But what we’ve discovered is that they leap to policy responses and often don’t take the time to change their behaviour or that of their department’s or organisation’s.

What happens though when they really get a chance to hear their staff? One food retail area manager said recently to us after a session where we had read aloud the verbatim insight we had gathered from their staff: “You know, I knew all that. They’d said it before. But I didn’t really respond to it because somehow I had never managed to really take it in”. This manager now regards listening as important as acting.

For something to be a compliment, it has to be seen as a compliment by the recipient

It sounds obvious, but take another example. A manager in one division of a large UK company sensed that women were just not having a good time working in his division. He had noticed that whenever there were panels or discussions the men were loud and present and the women seemed absent, unasked. He also has daughters! (Never underestimate the power of personal engagement.)

He asked us to investigate. So we circulated (with replies confidential to us) a set of open questions about how staff felt about their prospects of progression, how they felt their difference was valued by the division, how they felt about being a woman in the division, how they felt about the way they were treated by senior management, and so on…

We took all the verbatim replies, analysed it and themed the answers. And section by section we read it to the exec team. After each block we asked them, in pairs, to discuss what they had heard and choose one word which described how they felt about it, emotionally.

One of the things that creates real inclusion is when we truly dignify the experiences of people who are different from us.

No solutions, yet. Just feelings. The words were: mortified, accountable, outraged, OMG responsible, overwhelmed. And finally in summary: “Important that we felt discomforted by it because it is a spur to action and we feel responsible for leading the change”.

What they had heard was described by one exec as a culture of “unfettered behaviour”.  Roy and I came away thinking that the women in that division were just ‘weary’, tired of being treated that way and always having their clothes, their appearance, their mood commented on by the men.

Afterwards one of those men said to me: ”Does that mean I can’t ever compliment a woman on what she is wearing” And I said: “Just have a quick look at the verbatim feedback and at what the women are actually saying. And then remember that for something to be a compliment, it has to be heard by the person receiving it as a compliment. Try talking to them about their work”.

Listening and hearing: there’s a distinction

The reason this kind of listening helps to create an ‘inclusive’ culture at work is that we listen but we seldom hear. We look at how to fix it. Or we don’t hear the experience properly. We second guess it.

One of the things that creates real inclusion is when we truly dignify the experiences of people who are different from us. When black people describe racism, if you’re white listen and explore. Accept, don’t argue or justify it.

Creating diversity is not adding someone different to the norm.

When straight people think the way to talk to gay people is to be a bit racy, making double entendres constantly, however good your intentions (and believe me I’ve worked with many people who do it the whole time thinking they are being fun and chummy and inclusive) it does not make us feel included. It doesn’t value our difference, it limits our potential.

Creating diversity is not adding someone different to the norm. It’s creating a new norm so that everyone’s difference is valued and combined.  The way cultures include people is they provide space for us all to be heard and through that create new ways of working and meeting challenges.  

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