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Dhaka Tribune

How do you know if your organization is really inclusive?

Well-meaning but ineffective diversity practices can be counterproductive. Track your organizational journey with insights from behavioural science

Update : 04 Mar 2024, 03:20 PM

Corporate policies of diversity and inclusion run the risk of generating apathy. Not as a set of values, but as a set of practices that may fail to engender their desired outcomes. Ineffective practices can be counterproductive.

This is particularly true for multinational companies that roll out global policies without capitalizing on the cultural diversity inherent in their operations across time zones, and in hubs such as Singapore. 

On that backdrop, Dr Grace Lordan, Director of the Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics, and I conducted a study around two related questions: Are there insights from behavioural science that can enhance the effectiveness of inclusion practices in financial services? Second, are there lessons from Singapore that may apply to other multi-cultural hubs?

We suggest a framework represented by the convenient acronym of INCLUSION. Every letter of INCLUSION signifies a marker for organizational culture. This rubric can also form a template for workshops within firms about their inclusion journeys.

Let me elaborate on each of these markers as a set of first-person questions that leaders may want to ask of themselves.

Inclusive leadership

Have I been trained to be an inclusive leader or was I promoted based only on my performance as a producer? Have I been exposed to concepts of behavioural science that allow me to identify known biases such as groupthink, halo effect, anchoring, etc, and design my decision-making processes to counter them? Do I chair meetings in a way that allows diversity to surface? There is an eight-week, online certificate course by LSE called “Inclusive Leadership Through Behavioural Science” that serves as an example of relevant training options.

Norms in hiring

Do I follow norms of hiring that are deliberately designed to counter affinity and familiarity biases? Do I cast the net of potential candidates outside of my own networks or do I have preconceptions of the “type of people” who can perform certain roles? Do we have narrow selection filters such as academic results or do we have task-based and apprentice-style hiring routes?

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Cross-cultural understanding

Especially in a regional hub like Singapore that serves as an interlocutor between the West and parts of Southeast Asia, do I take advantage of the cross-cultural richness in the room? Do I map that diversity with the diversity of my client base and scan for opportunities accordingly? 

Misunderstandings may arise if rules around debate and dissent are not made explicit. Conference calls across time zones are susceptible to “communication illusion” when a team discusses amicably together but each person’s takeaway is different. 

In the words of an executive, “Silence means different things in different cultures. What is unsaid can be very important.” This can manifest itself, for example, in a risk committee meeting where the decision to extend credit to an Asian company requires input from the country manager as well as the regional risk officer who may have different styles of engagement and proficiency in English. 

Cultural differences may also intersect with gender bias. To quote another leader, “As the only woman at the meeting, if I know that the others have already reached consensus, it is easier for me to hold back my views.” 

At another Western organization, a well-meaning guidance that employees should avoid working outside of standard working hours did not have the desired impact. To colleagues in Asia, that was an empty gesture because the principal reason for their working in the evenings was to seek transactional approvals from counterparts in New York. More delegated authority would have been more meaningfully inclusive.

The crucial question is: Are we being inclusive in how we design inclusive policies? 

Stories and case studies about that client we acquired or that risk we dodged because of our proactive approach to inclusion can help cement the business value of that approach

Long term perspective

Do I succumb to short-term commercial pressure or am I consistent in reinforcing our commitment to inclusion? Building a diverse plate of candidates for a job opening takes time. Diverse teams may also take longer and more deliberate effort to come together. Without consciously pursuing inclusion habits, simply assembling a superficially diverse team can have detrimental effects. 

If the near-term costs are not acknowledged and the long-term benefits are not made salient, diversity and inclusion initiatives can come across as inauthentic. 

Understanding the benefits 

Do I genuinely view diversity and inclusion as an investment, or do I treat it like an expense? Do we have a theory of change that maps inclusion to better returns for the business? If so, have we been thoughtful about generating metrics that truly reflect impact beyond first-order headlines such as the percentage of women on the board? If the typical Canadian company has twice as many women on their boards but half as many in the C-suite as Singapore, which is more inclusive? 

Do we routinely evaluate diversity interventions at a business level, and can I be honest about what does not work? If not, is there business ownership for diversity initiatives or are they seen as compliance chores?

In the words of one of our interviewees, “We have mostly launched into these initiatives without senior executives making an effort to explain why that is important. Some colleagues simply roll their eyes.”

Salient social impact

To the extent that diversity and inclusion is central to our values and organizational purpose, do we consistently display those values in our relationship with suppliers, collaborators, and customers? In the same way that we are required to track CO2 emissions in our supply chain, do we have transparent rules of engagement with external parties that affirm diversity and inclusion? Is our commitment visible, credible and consistent?

Inclusion is closely related to trust and it is important that well-meaning initiatives are not misconstrued as performative and tokenistic.

Incentives

Is there alignment between our rhetoric about collaboration and our practice of paying mostly for individual performance? Do managers feel that they have sufficient skin in the game when it comes to inclusive behaviour? Have we thought through the second-order effects of linking performance to pay and the best way to incentivize inclusive outcomes? 

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Opportunities

How do we allocate opportunities for employees to shine and perform special projects? Do I have a fairness filter to ensure that we are not simply promoting those who ask most loudly? Do I audit my decisions from time to time to observe patterns in how I distribute opportunities? 

If we surveyed our employees today, would they confirm that there is reasonable equity in the distribution of opportunities? Small acts of exclusion can compound and create significant divergence in career outcomes over time.

Narratives

How does diversity and inclusion fit into our core business strategy and the narrative of our economic valuation? Do we couch this simply in terms of social responsibility or do we demonstrate its instrumental role in averting risks or generating revenue? Do we tell stories of inclusion and innovation that relate to the felt experience of colleagues in their professional contexts? Stories and case studies about that client we acquired or that risk we dodged because of our proactive approach to inclusion can help cement the business value of that approach.

At a time of heightened uncertainty and multiple disruptions upending business models, diversity and inclusion could build resilience and expand the surface-area of serendipity. However, in order to ensure effectiveness, it is important to pursue it with the rigour and discipline afforded to traditional areas of investment in corporations. 



Lutfey Siddiqi is a Visiting Professor-in-Practice, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE IDEAS) and a Co-investigator & Advisory board member, The Inclusion Initiative (TII).

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