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Most of the problems and challenges in organizations, together with most of the solutions, are behavioural in nature. It’s about what people do, not about what they are thinking of doing, or just thinking. People, however, naturally focus more on processes and systems because this is what is usually at the forefront of the corporate citizen’s mind, in their day to day life. That relegates behaviours into the ‘consequence’ basket, what happens after, a bit of an afterthought.  But the problem is that behaviours create cultures, not the other way around. They are the input, not the output, not the day after, but Patient Zero. It’s where it all starts (what are the behaviours we need for A?), not the endpoints (declare X, Y, Z and you’ll get these behaviours).

If you think of most of the themes currently on the table of the organization these days, they all are behavioural, and yet, the attention is somewhere else. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is a good example.

It focuses a lot on ‘the function’, which not surprisingly automatically requires a ‘Head Of’.  Then, on what needs to be changed structurally (e.g. more representation of minority groups). And finally, on the associated communication and training. There is usually not a lot of behavioural granularities here.

But if there is not habitual diversity of thinking and of ideas in the behavioural DNA of the company (which would mean that we value diversity per se, at a very granular level, foundational, not as an application), other applied ‘diversities’ (gender for example) could just become a quota to reach, a target, and, in the process,  possibly killing all the beauty of the never exploited primary diversity.

Some DEI warriors don’t like this thinking and tend to dismiss it as ‘general diversity’, not the real diversity which for them is mostly a question of quotas. There is no question that creating the conditions for diversity (providing seats at the table, seeking different experiences, transcultural, for example) is fundamental. But this cannot simply become management by ratios for the purpose of ticking some boxes.

For example, you can obtain a great deal of sustained diversity by having, say, 30% of your people this afternoon asking the questions: Is there a different way to solve this? Who else needs to know about this? Who needs to be involved? Or by always bringing 3 options to a decision, at least one of them unconventional. And this is not the whole list. We do this in our Viral Change™  programmes with great success. It may sound simplistic, but it is very powerful at scale, across an organization.

When this kind of primary diversity is widespread and entrenched as a habit, any other ‘particular diversity’ will already be finding a good home. Unfortunately, this is not the standard way. It’s easier to look at ratios and quotas and showcase them.

The re-presentations (as psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist would put it) have taken over the presence. He often jokes about the question ‘how does one become a Buddhist?’ Easy – some people say – sit on the floor, cross your legs, wear orange, and close your eyes. My analogy is, have a Function, call it Diversity and showcase some people from minority groups in the leadership team.

By the way, there is little logic in grouping D, E and I into a construct called DEI. Even from a financial performance perspective, it makes little sense, as the superb professor of Finance at the London Business School, Alex Edmans, has demonstrated.

Mirror arguments can easily be made in areas such as ESG (another construct), Health and Wellbeing, Psychological Safety or even the whole ‘Future of Work discussion’, where the hybrid/non hybrid/remote/office ‘debate’ has taken over the airtime. The latter being the wrong end of the stick: workplaces are in cultures; cultures are not in a workplace – we have mistaken the content for the container. Debating the number of days in the office is like debating the number of commas in a Shakespeare play.

So, what about training? For example, DEI training.

Again, this is another ‘easy default’ that tricks us into adopting a relatively easy way to implement a ‘solution’. Training has more than a legitimate place in corporate development, serving well awareness and skilling. Unfortunately, it has limited power in cultures. These are largely un-trainable and shaped by the day-to-day (behavioural) interactions of people mostly following unwritten rules and social copying what is around them.

Sending bankers to a business school for a course on ethics, to become more ethical- a real example in the UK after the ‘banking problems’ – is either a commendable good intention of extraordinary naivety, or a bad joke.

The fact that people may ‘get’ the intellectual and rational side of something, does not mean that they will change behaviours. Rationally, people agree that smoking is bad, driving when under the influence of alcohol is bad, and ditto for not wearing a seat belt. If awareness and safety training were enough, most of these and other problems would have been eradicated ages ago. When compliance leaves the room, the real culture shows up.

Similarly, the success of so called Bias Training, is largely underwhelming, not because it’s wrong in itself but because people wrongly expect behavioural change from a bunch of lectures or presentations only. The emphasis is on the only. We attribute powers to training that it does not have in the behavioural arena.

Behavioural change at scale (and you would have thought that DEI advocates would want that, not just the awareness and enlightenment of a small part of the company) can only be achieved by a bottom-up ‘social movement’ that equally touches the Board and the front line.  That needs to be orchestrated carefully. Training is then a good comrade in arms. The combination of a top-down communication push-system and a bottom-up behavioural pull one is fantastic. I have described this in Homo Imitans as the World I and World II working together and it’s at the core of our Viral Change™ methodology

The tragedy of DEI is that it may progressively die of terminal corporatization. A recent, ‘epidemic-like’ round of dismissals, of (relatively recently appointed) Chief Diversity Officers has been described in the US. People often report that ‘it was mission impossible’, a monumental task that was naively addressed by creating a corporate function.

All that is corporatized, eventually melts in the air, or in the pages of an Annual Report.

My intention is far from discouraging the tackling of the reality of diversity, equity and inclusion (or any other set of cultural drivers, which I am happy to group in trios if you wish – what about Performance, Engagement, Belonging?), but I am making a plea to take them seriously by being very critical about the ’labelled solutions’.  Those solutions for me are behavioural in their roots and therefore require a behavioural-cultural approach. Corporate is very good at wrongly providing structural solutions (a new Function) to behavioural problems and is applying the same medicine to the recently acquired DEI. No surprises here.

Using the lenses I use, I can tell you that DEI can be rescued from its hijack to truly realize the value of diversity of thinking, of ideas, of inputs, of participation, and equal treatment and involvement of people. The Viral Change™ mobilizing platform provides the scaffolding to address the culture goals in an incredibly powerful way. It’s behavioural DEI, powered by Viral Change™. Just a conversation away if you wish. Reach out to [email protected].

How you can rescue DEI from its hijackers – some recommendations:

Don’t address DEI in isolation, as a distinct entity of some sort
Blend it with broader culture change and evolution. Otherwise, the organization becomes a playground of competition between acronyms and their meaning. Many people who quote ESG have no clue what the letters mean. The more you label, the less you get it.

Go down to the granular side (behavioural) as much as you can
What is diversity? How do you recognise it in terms of what people do, not a label in the management structure. Translate into behaviours. (Hints: Opening the door to somebody is a behaviour; being courteous is not. Diversity as a mindset means nothing since it would mean different things to people).

Don’t rely on training only
Intellectual understanding, even emotional reaction to it, do not always trigger new behaviours.

Above all, don’t use the victimhood card
It never helps real victims. The DEI world is saturated by it.

If you care about diversity, have the courage to say that it starts with ideas, opinions, points of views, cultures, experiences
And, even more courageous, to say that it is intrinsically good as a value. ‘Employee engagement’ has killed the intrinsic value of work. It has been presented as a utility to deliver performance. What if ‘engagement’ (with your own work, with others, with a collective effort in the organization) were good in itself, regardless of how much performance ‘you get’?

Diversity of the human condition, and in our business organizations, based on the intrinsic value of the dignity of work, is too important to leave it in the hands of any label
The ultimate goal of a DEI corporate function should be to become irrelevant as fast as possible.

If you are broadly in agreement with the principles of this article, and if you care about the behavioural and foundational aspects underneath diversity, but feel that the conversation has been hijacked, forward this article around your network.

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