Why Diversity is Difficult - Plus what it means and why it matters



The aim of this Forum was to get beyond the blather about diversity. Genuine diversity is a difficult thing to live with. A united team just flows. When the awkward squad gets involved the temperature goes up, exasperation grows, debate intensifies, progress slows. Diverse views are often unwelcome.

‘They make you stop and think, they make it hard to agree. We’re wired deep down to go with our own. We’re social animals and if someone looks or sounds or behaves like they’re from a different tribe we can’t help our dog brain kicking in, telling us to beware.’

It might be a social effect but it’s not a helpful one for society. To be tolerant, peaceful and happy we need free expression, choosing what we love because we won’t appreciate everything, but not closing down what we don’t. This can be tough when views are distasteful, challenging values held dear. There need to be boundaries, but how are they set and policed? Who decides what is useful dissent? When does an argument poison society more than it adds in resilience?

‘Like we said, it might sound all sound obvious but it is anything but.’

So we asked three people with vivid experience and well thought-through views to share them with us. Our aim was to add depth to the nodding of heads and a counter-point to the divisive politics of our age.

Jan Gooding is at the heart of diversity’s main roads and in a position to influence the establishment.

She is Aviva’s first Global Inclusion Director leading on their diversity and inclusion strategy. She is also Chair of Trustees for LGBT charity Stonewall.

Ije Nwokorie was until recently CEO of global creative consultancy, Wolff Olins.

In an industry with strong white middle-class male tendencies, he has been successful in a very human and personable way, despite the odds being stacked against him.

Jodie Ginsberg is chief executive of Index on Censorship who exist to promote diversity of views no matter how tricky this is in the countries their work takes them to.

She has argued against student unions and in favour of hard-line religious speakers being allowed on campus because free expression is not just about embracing safe, comfortable debate. She has thought deeply about where society’s lines should be drawn if we want a tolerant and open world.

So did we find meaning beyond cliché, sense in sensibility? Did we emerge with guidance to help our grappling with reality? Simon Caulkin has summarised where we got to on an evening of enlightenment and the odd challenge too‘It’s a tricky subject’ warned the chairman.

Difficult diversity

The discussion that followed, summed up by Simon Caulkin

Too right. ‘Jesus, do we really need another report on this?’ exclaimed the first speaker crossly. ‘Ugh,’ grimaced the second, reporting his wife’s reaction on hearing the subject of his contribution. ‘Talk less. Listen more. Thank you’, was the concise summing up of the evening’s lessons by the third.’

Phew. At first sight the heat engendered was surprising, given that the subject of the January Foundation Forum, one of the most revealing and challenging ever, was diversity. And if there’s one thing that you won’t get anyone to say anything against these days, at least in public, it’s diversity. It’s so politically correct it aches. ‘And that, it turned out, was one of the things that made people cross.’ We really don’t need another report saying that firms with diverse leadership and people are more innovative, grow faster and are more profitable, declared Jan Gooding, Director for Global Inclusion at insurer Aviva. Just do it.

Ije Nwokorie, until recently CEO of brand consultancy Wolff Olins and now at Apple, rejected the very idea that you needed a business case ‘just to give people just a chance to survive in our organisations’. It’s not that it’s not important: we do need strategies and arguments – but that’s what makes it a tiresome, even ‘skin-crawling’ subject to deal with. Oh, and he wasn’t going to answer the questions the chairman had posed in setting up the session – what it means and why it matters – but simply tell some stories. Although it turned out these answered the questions rather well.

What got up the nose of third speaker Jodie Ginsberg, ex-journalist and now CEO of Index, was a variant on the same thing – the tick-box approach that assumed that once the ‘correct’ ratio of colour, gender and sexual orientation had been complied with, that was it, job done. For Ginsberg the main challenge was something box-ticking doesn’t get near: ‘how do we marry corporate culture and a homogenous value set with a tolerance not just of race, religion, gender and sexuality but also of opinions?

‘How do we live with people whose political opinions are different from our own?’ Good question, which we’ll come back to later.’

For Gooding, a marketer who is also currently Chair of Stonewall, the LGBT rights campaigning charity, the commercial issue was relatively straightforward. At Aviva, she said, it was quite important not to come at diversity from an ethics and human rights angle. Aviva is a 21st century, technology-savvy insurance company dealing with customers who have suffered misfortune or who want to manage risk of some kind. ‘So what I said was that in a digital world where we want to work fast, we have to be effortlessly in tune and empathetic. It doesn’t work if we’re just one type of person – and insurance people are of a kind, I can tell you’.

But while being different is important, people also need to feel they belong to the culture being created, because that’s when they enjoy their job and give of their best – which is at least 5 per cent better than those not so engaged. ‘So I’m afraid there is a nasty capitalism productivity argument’. An argument moreover that she could attest to personally. Not long after coming out as gay she joined Aviva and was advised to go back in the closet, which she did, and ‘I’m telling you it was absolutely untenable. It affected my performance by much more than 5 per cent’. So she came back out again.

Then a little while later she was asked to be Aviva’s first Global Inclusion Director, and first on the to-do list was managing the fall-out. ‘There is a backlash. Even though I was careful to say, no, I’m not diversity director, I’m inclusion director, I’m here for everyone, men aren’t the problem – everyone is a minority in something. But someone somewhere thinks you’re taking something away so there will be a backlash’.

Nwokorie’s arc was just as revealing. Nigerian-raised, architecturally-trained in the US, entrepreneurial, he found himself at 34 harvesting plenty of job interviews but no offers – not, he insists, because of racism, more because people couldn’t think what to do with someone so difficult to pigeonhole: ‘We just don’t think you’ll fit’.

The world changed when Robert Jones, in charge of strategy at brand gurus Wolff Olins, decided that this was precisely the reason why Ije should be hired. ‘I think what got Robert and people at Wolff Olins excited was that they understood organisations needed to change, and if they were going to change they had to become less and less like what they already were,’ is how Nwokorie described it. That wasn’t (and isn’t) the norm for companies, or society, for that matter, for the good reason that it ran against the grain not of race but of tribe.

The tribe allows like to identify and bond with like (its strength), but by the same token it is also a powerful mechanism for sniffing out and rejecting potential threats to the integrity of the system.

The characteristic was of fundamental importance for industrial-age companies. In these times competitive advantage came from consistency, stamping out identical goods time after time. For this, the job of the manager was to ensure compliance.

Contrast that with today’s digital world where the differentiator is creativity, and creativity feeds on a multitude of diverse sources and ways of thinking. ‘I don’t care about another McKinsey report – for me that is the entirety of the business case for getting beyond uniformity,’ he said. And as with Gooding, it’s a case he has lived out himself. Three years after joining Nwokorie was running Olins’ London office. After seven he was global CEO, and Wolff Olins is now the dominant brand consultant in the UK and the west coast of the States. No one would argue that hiring a self-described ‘six-foot black guy wearing a lot of leather with a strange Nigerian/American accent, a booming laugh and comically exaggerated hand gestures’ wasn’t a brilliant decision.

Index Against Censorship, which Ginsberg runs, is a campaigning organisation that was created in 1972 to help artists trapped behind the Iron Curtain find the oxygen their work deserved by giving them an audience in the west.

Its central purpose is standing up for free expression. Her observation from direct experience is that ‘diversity is great until someone disagrees with you’. This is an angle that leads very quickly out of the comfort zone. It’s not just going beyond the tick box – although Ginsberg remembers with discomfort being taken to task for failing to realise that an apparently diverse panel she had put together faithfully reproduced in its composition the power structures that it was supposed to challenge. ‘It’s not even just saying we’re tolerant of your colour, gender and sexuality: it’s saying we recognise that you bring your whole person to the job. And sometimes doing that means you bring ideas and opinions that your co-workers disagree with.’

When that happens, how do you reconcile a strong corporate culture and values with the right to disagree? This was the issue at the heart the famous Google case, when engineer James Damore stirred up a hornet’s nest by querying the value of diversity initiatives when women and men had congenitally different aptitudes (incidentally, something recent research contradicts). ‘Google showed its tolerance of diversity by sacking James Damore. Now I’m not saying that I agree with his opinion on women,’ Ginsberg went on.

‘But asking people to suppress their opinions doesn’t make them go away. I do think as organisations we have to think about better ways of handling the fact that other people have different opinions and may not always agree.’

It’s a key question that evoked suitably diverse reactions. Gooding warned of the danger of retreating into holier than thou purism, and of the need to accept that living with difference isn’t always comfortable:

‘You have to be prepared to offend, you have to be prepared to be offended. You have to cope with people’s rudeness. This is deeply personal’.

But only up to a point: the greater good demanded that there had to be red lines, and beyond them the cause of inclusion might entail exclusion of those who couldn’t accept it – a tough leadership decision. She nuanced it with a plea for the benefit of the doubt, concluding impatiently: ‘Let’s calm down once we’ve got some diversity and inclusion in the mix and then get the prize, which is the creativity, the ideas and the new world that we all want to have, because actually that’s what this is all about.’

Nwokorie confessed that he’d have probably done the same thing as Google – not necessarily because it was right ‘but because I would have been livid that somebody in my organisation thought fit to express the view that half of our employees are not up to the job’. But he set the comment in a wider context of privilege: the need for men in general to face up to the conditions they have created for women in the workplace, and in particular for straight white men to recognise that wherever they are, it is not at the bottom of the social heap. ‘So they can bear with the gay and black people and the women for a while, while we address the imbalance of hundreds of years. I’m a big fan of #MeToo, and if a few men wrongly get accused I think that’s collateral damage as we address these important things’.

Other important questions came up in the discussions, But in the end, perhaps the most telling argument in favour of diversity was the Forum itself, which in raising questions, half answering them, disagreeing, doubling back and reframing them, acted out the issue in a way it is difficult to do justice to here.

Opinions differed – naturally – about causes for optimism, or the reverse. Everyone agreed that to call it a tricky subject was a huge underestimate, and to make diversity work in practice is a test of leadership and self-scrutiny that everyone must face up to, bar none. But it was hard not to feel that the evening was part of the process of working through it, which was why it was both compelling and, finally, hopeful.

As the chairman summed up, we’ve reached a point (in the world not the Forum) where we seem to be shouting at each other from greater and greater distance and understanding each other less and less. Yet ‘actually in business you’ve got a chance. You’re close enough to find out a bit more and listen a bit more, and of course it’s hard if you’re under pressure from the media or colleagues getting pissed off and shouting that you need to act or what have you. That’s maybe where you need to be strong and try and find some firm ground to stand on’. Maybe that’s where this kind of discussion, in rehearsing the arguments, helps most profoundly. It feels we are a little bit nearer working this all out. And we didn’t even mention Brexit (until now – doh!).

The Foundation's view

So where did we come out? The three biggest things from where we were standing, not quite in the speakers non-matching shoes but ever so close to them, were these:

As Ije described, diversity matters because as we move from an industrial to a digital age what it takes to win moves too, from sameness as in mass production, to creativity where difference counts.

Creativity can literally be described as putting familiar ideas together in unfamiliar ways. So if you want to increase the odds of an organisation being creative then putting people familiar with different ideas, beliefs and influences next to each other creates at least one part of the conditions for success. The start of a business case for sceptics perhaps?

As Jan described, inclusion is a much more useful idea to act on than diversity. An inclusive business will find itself becoming more diverse because people beyond the original core find themselves feeling they fit, and able to do their best work as a result.

A  team of similar people will find it easy to get on, comfortable to work together, nice to be with. But when did comfortable lead to some kind of breakthrough? It’s not easy putting a new team together or starting a new business – chaos is an enemy and finding some kind of traction means aligning people, creating common ground. But there comes a point where order becomes the enemy not the friend, assuming you also have the skills to make the most of the raw material – inclusive leadership and a sense that as a team member I feel like I belong. In fact measuring this inside Aviva was at the head of the plan for Jan’s ways of assessing progress, not the more common tick-box lists of particular minority groups.

And then we had our final question, asking whether the panel would have done the same as Google and sacked James Damore. Jodie's response showed being genuinely inclusive can go against your most immediate instincts.

Mr Damore’s views were distasteful to many, and definitely not inclusive in spirit. The most common visceral reaction might be outrage or similar, and that gets amplified by the wider popular response – upset people across departments, social media rage, a media campaign... But that doesn’t make it right. Free expression isn’t limited to views that are the same as the majority, even if you happen to be in the majority yourself and believe you are ‘right’. What Jodie described was a more tolerant response – space for the view being expressed and curiosity about what led to it being held.

This means putting yourself firmly in other people’s shoes, maybe assuming good intent but a different set of beliefs from a different background, upbringing and life experiences, leading on to a search for at least some common ground and respect for difference. The opposite in other words to the discourse we’re having now around issues like Brexit where the two sides shout more and more loudly from greater and greater distances apart, with zero increase in mutual understanding and respect. This was very counterintuitive. It clearly requires emotional control. You might call it inclusive leadership

About the foundation

The Foundation is a management consultancy specialising in growth. We help clients address big organic growth challenges; growing faster, growing into new markets or fending off threats to growth

What these challenges share is the need to influence customer behaviour, but this is inherently tough. Why? Because people in any organisation naturally see the world from the inside-out, with colleagues close and customers distant, and lots of assumptions about how things work that aren’t challenged

We help clients look from the outside-in, re-connecting them with what customers really value (the problem they want to solve, not usually what the client sells), then finding new and better ways to create this value

This means working both as expert advisors and facilitators. The issue with simply gathering outside-in information is that it lacks impact to get senior teams to tackle inconvenient truths in what customers want, and to believe their own organisation can be different

By using ‘Immersion’, personal conversations with customers and leaders of organisations in other sectors who have tackled parts of their challenge, we help teams get round beliefs that stand in their way. This helps them develop better answers for customers and new ways of achieving lasting success

We most often answer three questions:

Developing new propositions

Improving customers’ experiences

Developing customer-led strategies for broader issues such as increasing retention or lifetime value

Our clients include HSBC, JLR, O2, M&S and Ebay, with achievements including helping create Plan A at M&S, adding £100m of value to a Travelex travel money proposition, and giving Morrisons a competitive direction contributing to their return to growth.

Behind our work our most distinctive characteristic is our team and their outlook. Each individual is motivated to and experienced in crossing the border between the worlds of customers and business which often resist mixing well.

Contact Details

Charlie Dawson (Founding Partner): cdawson@the-foundation.com / +44 7785 268 859

Charlie Sim (Director) csim@the-foundation.com / +44 7958 574 917

Anna Miley (Director) amiley@the-foundation.com / +44 7816 261 987

John Sills (Director) jsills@the-foundation.com / +44 7990 943 402

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