By Ellen McGirt
May 22, 2019
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Nicole Anand, a political economist and multi-disciplinary design strategist, has just published a compelling piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. She begins by acknowledging the obvious: There’s a lot of crowd noise about diversity these days, but not much seems to be happening yet.

In the past few years, a race to the top regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in international civil society has brought about energetic collaboration and discussion. Popular DEI practices include a “no manels” pledge through which men honor a vow against participating in “all-male” conference panels, discussions of appointing women and people of color to boards of directors, and organizational strategies with goals of promoting marginalized persons into leadership positions.

It appears now, that we’re in the thick of the middle of this conversation, that deeper issues are emerging. I know from three-plus years on the race beat, people are getting frustrated.

For one thing, there hasn’t been much progress.

Anand notes correctly that the move from what-to-do to why-isn’t-this-working is a painful step. “This prompts questions about international civil society’s understanding of diversity and the reasons for its absence,” she says. “It also reminds us that solutions to systemic issues like racial inequity often tackle symptoms, such as demographic representation, and overlook deeply rooted causes, from institutional discrimination to cultural bias and transgenerational trauma.”

What follows is a passionate discussion of “checkbox-style interpretations of identity,” which have been embraced by organizations looking for an emotionally tolerable diversity fix. That strategy is often doomed. So, when the “diversity hire” doesn’t work out, the self-supporting tropes are trotted out: Bad culture fit. Lowered the bar. Didn’t meet expectations. Sometimes, they just quit. “[T]he person willfully leaves the job due to the stress of dealing with one of the most commonly felt flaws of checkbox diversity: its prompting of questions about tokenism.”

The problems are amplified in global businesses or organizations that default to Western management theories – those emphasizing efficiency and productivity to run internal processes, she says. (You’re going to want to refamiliarize yourself with neo-colonial theory for this section.)

As depressing as all of this sounds, Anand offers a re-framing that I found profoundly encouraging.

If you look to check boxes and simply expect the non-majority culture person to assimilate, you’ve missed the beauty of their presence. Because they walk through the world differently than you, they see opportunities and problems differently than you. That’s the gift.

“For organizations to succeed at DEI, they must internally embrace people’s different approaches to problem-solving that are shaped by their unique lived experience,” she says, a process which will take practice, ego-reduction, listening and most of all, a willingness to re-think power.

Here’s how I interpret that: It is not the job of non-majority culture people to dazzle you with their “different” ideas, then blend back in. It’s everyone’s job to learn how to craft new solutions together, as idea-generating peers. The new leadership imperative, as I see it, is to find ways to help people become gifts to each other.

She has three practical tips that I know you’ll find useful, but I’ll focus on just one. People with “different ideas” are often annoying. But the “challenge” is the whole point, she says. “Diversity in approaches to problem-solving means those who are doing it differently may be perceived as disruptive rebels for having an alternative path to improving social issues,” she says.

As a person with a long history of being a checked box with annoying (okay, often bad) ideas, it made me smile. Sure, some deserved to die immediately, others were salvaged for parts. But talking things through with an eye toward unconventional action seems like a good practice in itself. Even if an idea ends up in intellectual hospice, the very process would stoke curiosity, empathy, equity, and boldness.

It might even impact your bottom line.

(For more fodder, I recommend Nilofer Merchant’s research and work, The Power of Onlyness, which raceAhead recently covered here.)

As a leadership super-nerd and proud leadership book writer/editor I want to know more about how this could work. Any ideas to share? Hit me up. Let’s equalize the world and be gifts to each other.

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