Diversity is a buzzword that has caught fire around water coolers across the world. We talk the talk, but we can’t seem to walk to walk. Why?
Two particularly flawed perspectives have shaped diversity initiatives in modern organisation culture. The first perspective: deep down, we’re all the same. The second perspective: we celebrate the uniqueness of your cultural heritage. The first perspective downplays the differences that make us unique; and the second perspective ends up creating small subgroups within an organisation.
I have worked at organisations where the traditional status quo is judiciously and systematically maintained; and I have worked at places where things appear to be diverse, but are simply not so when you scratch beyond the surface. In places where the status quo reigns supreme, you are expected to fit in, even if you know full well that you never will. In organisations where diversity is the talk of the town, you are, more often than not, relegated to roles that require you to work with clients or customers of the same identity group.
Is this a problem? Yes and no. It all depends on the needs of the organisation and its customers and clients. When I was working in Japan, it was not a requirement for expats to speak Japanese–and most of them didn’t–but having a rudimentary grasp of the Japanese language opened doors for me that would otherwise have been firmly sealed shut.
Cliques are often created based on language requirements. English may be the lingua franca of the modern commercial world, but if your role requires you to work with different ethnic groups–especially groups where the language is a strong symbol of national identity–you will need someone from or familiar with that ethnic group to navigate the linguistic and cultural terrains of that group.
To band together based on ethnic or religious background is a primal human instinct. If we want to overcome that mental barrier, it is going to take a lot of time and effort. You can learn a second, third or even fourth language. It is not impossible. But it will take work and commitment on your part.
The real question is: with whom does the responsibility to take the time and effort reside?
For the ‘majority’, it is often argued that it is against their interests to take the time and effort to understand and include minority groups. This is a myopic view: one which ends up excluding valuable viewpoints and allows us to default to inaccurate and misleading stereotypes for decision-making purposes. If the roots of our belief systems are rotten, nothing will grow.
Over the years, I’ve known many members of the so-called ‘majority’ who hold onto and perpetuate deeply-rooted beliefs with no factual basis. Growing up as a young person in Singapore, I was often subject to the flawed notion that minority groups–i.e. Indians and Malays–are less intelligent, less capable, less successful and even less attractive. Notwithstanding the stereotype, I graduated as one of the top students in my class. Despite the importance that the government has placed regarding the role of education as a key to economic success, my educational achievement did not open doors for me. In fact, the doors were not only shut, but outright slammed in my face. It seems the only thing worse than a minority who is not achieving; is a minority who is overachieving.
I’m against affirmative action based reforms because I’ve always considered it downright patronising and ineffective in creating long-term change. Reforms that seek to create ‘equality’ in the workplace don’t end up creating equity. Companies that operate within the equality paradigm often institute career development programs geared towards minorities and women.
If you are a high performer, there is a real risk and reality of being treated like a charity case. With time, companies that implement such policies can end up attracting personnel who are perfectly capable and yet seeking what can be described as preferential treatment. And the less spoken about reality–and the one that I have experienced time and time again–is that majority cultures prefer minorities who they can ‘help’. This ends up lowering the bar for the performance of the organisation as a whole.
What is the backlash of these flawed beliefs? In the case of overachievers, the answer is brain drain. One of the greatest challenges that organisations face to maintain or advance their competitiveness is to ensure a sustainable level of human capital accumulation. The challenge for policymakers is to invest and develop local talent as well as provide opportunities for that talent to realise its full potential. Following on from that, brain drain deprives countries of the necessary human capital which would enable them to safeguard their competitiveness.
The truth is that if we have groomed an individual in our public school system and on our soil, and then they leave because they are a minority or did not get the opportunities to succeed–then the majority is one that loses out. And who do they lose out to? Quite possibly another majority culture that is more welcoming, more open and more opportunistic. Economic migration is an available choice and one that is often seized when the opportunity arises.
The cracks appeared in the glass ceiling a long time ago. That so many choose to walk on cracked glass that will break and crash makes no logical sense. When the glass house comes crashing down and the roles reverse, it is not affirmative action, but your will to succeed, that will define the hero of the day.