Linking organisational development and diversity may seem contradictory, sort of like linking goat’s milk and lettuce. However, it’s a highly salient relationship.
Organisational development aims to enable organisations to navigate the changes necessary for survival and growth in changing times. While obvious change will inevitably create resistance and fear amongst some people, certain organisational characteristics can make people more receptive and give the ability to grasp the nettle of change when the need arises. One of these is diversity.
By diversity, I’m referring to a diversity of demographics. A pooling of approaches, thoughts and ideas that may lead to surprisingly productive innovations. If we acknowledge that every human being comes with a range of strengths and weaknesses, talents and blind spots, it becomes obvious that we have a duty to keep our “inner conservatives” sufficiently in check. If so, we allow our inner poets – or even our inner mavericks – some room to play.
Human minds tend to be resistive-conservative when confronted with the prospect of strange novelties. Novelties that may fundamentally alter the work environments to which they’ve become accustomed. This isn’t to disparage what I’m calling “conservatism”; a desire to conserve what has become precious or what works well is nothing to be ashamed of. However, if conservatism paralyses our innovative, change-embracing selves entirely, we’re doomed to a suffocating stasis.
If our conservative selves glue us to the familiar and influence our perceptions in such a way that we designate “new-different” as “strange-bad”, it becomes dangerous. Then we may find ourselves subliminally barring talented people from joining our organisations because they don’t conform to our unexamined presumptions.
Given that none of us can be entirely free of presumption, the task of cultivating a bias-free organisation may seem like an impossible one. However, without resorting to fairy tale idealism, there are some genuinely effective measures to adopt.
Biases are like cognitive shortcuts. Enabling us to make rapid decisions spontaneously or to follow algorithms without thinking painstakingly about every step. Since we exist in a sea of infinite sensory complexity that would overwhelm and paralyse us if we perceived all of it at once, this probably has some evolutionary value.
From a Gestalt Psychology perspective, both our shared and idiosyncratic biases enable us to see some distinguishable and comprehensible figures in the infinite ground from which they emerge. However, these biases can also be laced with irrational emotion. If using the perspective of a Gestalt practitioner, we introduce an element of play into the assumed boundaries demarcating figure from ground, and that inevitably involves suspending or interrupting our biases.
In this work, diversity can be a major asset. Diversity, with its different subjective perspectives, born of various socio-economic, gender and ethnic backgrounds offers unlimited opportunities. Besides the obvious ones, this can shed intriguing new light on how those demarcations are viewed and experienced. Calling them into question in the process.
Nevertheless, addressing the real question. To embrace diversity – something all organisations committed to productive organisational development must do – you can’t depend on diversity training programmes to surmount those deeply sedimented biases. Recent studies by Harvard Kennedy School academic Frank Dobbin and others have amply demonstrated that most diversity training programmes, despite their popularity amongst many big corporations (and despite their eye-watering costs), make little difference in changing attitudes, let alone behaviour.
Let me give a specific example. Back in the 1970s, less than 10 per cent of musicians in US orchestras were women. This had nothing to do with a feminine talent deficit. It was more about unconscious bias and diversity. Major orchestra directors believed they were making rational decisions based on performance skills at audition. However, addressing this issue by introducing curtains that visually separated auditioners from auditionees, something dramatic happened. The number of women playing in US orchestras has today risen to 40 per cent and is still climbing.
Initially, the curtains did nothing to change attitudes. The Orchestra directors were convinced that they were basing their decision only on the quality of the music. However, the evidence and outcome told a different story. A simple technique – visual veiling – blocked bias from interfering with judgement. Those curtains made it easier for directors to discern real talent, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
The sad fact is that despite the intelligence and humanity of its practitioners, recruitment and talent management remain mired in biases. Of course, the solution doesn’t involve moralistic finger pointing. Let he or she who is without bias cast the first stone. This isn’t about identifying bad people. It’s about preventing bad decisions, which good people are all too capable of making.
The audition curtain I referred to has virtual counterparts. Those come in the form of software that enables prospective employers to blind themselves to applicants’ demographic characteristics. When stripped away from knowing gender, age, educational, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, something happens. Managers are divested of distractions. Hence, managers are allowed to focus on factual information about talent in the CVs. Something that might otherwise have receded into the unnoticeable “ground.”
According to US academic Iris Bohnet, bias can be removed from interview processes by one simple move: “stop going with your gut.” There’s overwhelming evidence that unstructured interviews are not the best path to talent evaluation; in fact, they are deeply misleading. Structured interviews, scored in real time, exceeds them virtually every time.
If you want a workforce that is capable of embracing organisational development, focus on talent and hard data, not instinct – the avatar of unconscious bias.