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The case for inclusivity

17 August 2018
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The case for inclusivity By Brad Porteus, Global Head of People & HR at OLX Group


It starts out looking like a pretty straightforward topic. Homogenous teams systematically suffer from group think: they come up with the same ideas, trick themselves into believing their ideas are the best, and produce evidence as proof that confirms their beliefs. This makes teams weak. Diversity is the antidote.

My role as global head of HR at OLX Group means I'm accountable for ensuring our people and teams are always at full strength. So I was thrilled this past year when a spontaneous, self-organized internal movement catalysed, raising the volume on our own diversity challenges - notably addressing pockets of “mini-me” hiring and not nearly enough women in leadership positions.

Our journey has begun, which feels great. 

But, the deeper I immerse myself into the topic of diversity, the more I discover that diversity is far from simple. Complexity arises in layers in the form of social norms, bias, behaviours, structural barriers, culture, and so many other complicating factors.

As if solving for diversity wasn't already difficult enough, thought leaders in the field have added inclusion to the mix, raising the stakes to the even more intimidating sounding ‘D&I’.

C’mon, already! Let’s take baby steps and solve one thing at at time, before throwing more fuel onto the fire, right?

Last week I was exposed to cultural innovator Vernā Myers' elegant phasing:
“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Boom. Like thunder after a lightning strike, this phrase resonates. 

Dance as a metaphor for work is a powerful one, especially for global tech companies like OLX Group. I’ve often described our way of working as one giant dance floor. 

The DJ keeps changing the beat. Tempos change. People flow in and out. To survive and thrive, one has to be able to dance. One has to listen to the music, interact with others, incorporate their moves to yours, and improvise within the flow. Sometimes following, sometimes leading. Sometimes alone. Sometimes with a partner. Often in a group. Almost always with people you don’t know well, and who don’t know you.

Roles and tasks and initiatives are constantly in flux. People who figure out how to adapt, thrive. Those who don't, suffer.

In this company, I’ve seen new joiners hit the dance floor, and bust out a stellar dance move. Everyone wants to be part of it, and high-fives ensue. It can be mesmerising to watch, and even more fun to be a part of.

Inevitably, the music changes. Sometimes the dancer doesn’t recognize the change, too busy carrying on executing their epic dance move. While everyone else adjusts and flows, the person continues their same well-honed move. Gradually (then suddenly!) the dancer has lost the attention of the others on the floor. They find themselves totally and utterly stumped, wondering how it was going so right but suddenly went so wrong.

When Myers explains inclusion as the manner in which party goers are invited onto the dance floor, it completely resonates from a business context perspective. Senior leaders often conveniently forget they too were once the shy kid tentatively lurking in the shadows of the school gym at the high school dance.

And when a team is really feeling it and operating at their highest level, everyone’s on that dance floor doing their thing, listening to the music, riffing off of each other. Sometimes this higher state performance is called “flow”. What team members experience in moments of flow are deep feelings of belonging.

As such the dance metaphor completes itself when adding the holy grail of feelings of belonging. Which completes the triad:
  1. Diversity (being invited to the party)
  2. Inclusion (being asked to dance)
  3. Belonging (dancing like no one is watching)

(While the kids in Peanuts don't score super high on the diversity scale, it seems they have the inclusion thing nailed.)

What becomes clear is diversity itself is only one piece of a larger puzzle.
Because what’s the point of hosting dance party full of great dancers if no one’s actually busting a move?

Seeing how diversity, inclusion and belonging connect as a whole is somehow more digestible than looking at diversity in isolation.

When I searched it up, I discovered some have already started referring to this trinity as DIB. I generally can’t stand TLAs (three letter acronyms). In this case, the baggage-free DIB acronym works well, as I am convinced the emotional and social connotations associated with the term 'diversity' holds back progress, and enables skeptics to conveniently dismiss diversity as a social cause and not a business imperative.

So let’s go with DIB.
The goal of DIB is to assemble a diverse workforce who share an inclusive culture designed for people to reach their maximum potential through feelings of belonging.

Why DIB matters.

The spotlight on corporate diversity topics keeps shining brighter thanks in part to leaders at high profile tech giants like Facebook, Airbnb, and Google. But, it's far more than progressive tech companies in on this movement.

DIB has become important and relevant, not because it is the right thing to do (it happens to be), but because it’s the smart and competitive thing to do. As a business competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, DIB is too often raised in the context of social justice. Things like fairness. Opportunity for all. Meritocratic ideals. Overcoming social injustice for disadvantaged groups. DIB can be viewed by some as social engineering, motivated by some sort of liberal political or social agenda. These views can be toxic, as they discredit the interventions needed to drive competitiveness.

I firmly believe the emotional and social dimensions of DIB distracts from the rational and objective reasons why even the harshest skeptic should care. I’m convinced that positioning DIB in any way other than through the lens of business fitness will result in poor understanding and commitment by the community of stakeholders required to steer the cargo ship.
DIB isn’t about social engineering; DIB is about business competitiveness.

Research consistently shows that companies with diverse workforces and inclusive cultures systematically outperform their peers financially and in creating shareholder value.

The data and research summarized by Catalyst are as irrefutable as the data proving climate change. (In other words, still dismissed by those who willingly choose to look the other way).

A few gems from the Catalyst summary:
  • McKinsey & Company’s study of 1,000 companies in 12 countries found that organizations in the top 25% when it comes to gender diversity among executive leadership teams were more likely to outperform on profitability (21%) and value creation (27%).
  • Teams are as much as 158% more likely to understand target consumers when they have at least one member who represents their target’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or culture.
  • Companies with higher diversity in management earned 38% more of their revenues, on average, from innovative products and services in the last three years than companies with lower diversity.

But why is DIB seemingly surfacing more prominently now than ever? 

It wasn’t always the case the DIB would be such an obvious business competitive advantage. For centuries, there have been perhaps more advantages to a homogeneous labor force than a DIB one - for example, in industrial work, where workers toil in closed quarters assembling cars, sewing garments, or harvesting crops. In these cases harmony and homogeneous teams can be a benefit.

But, in the fast changing VUCA world, and as automation technologies consume predictable-task jobs leaving mostly knowledge jobs, DIB has suddenly become a largely untapped source of competitive advantage.

The counter-argument that free-market Adam Smith desciples like to make is if DIB is in the best interest of business, then why doesn’t the market self-correct frictionlessly?

It is correcting. But very slowly. In the meantime, those who move faster than others can gain a market advantage. Innovators will benefit and laggards will suffer.

Structural and cultural barriers exist which make the transition so slow. Barriers like unconscious bias, group think, and hiring through personal networks makes the whole slippery slope not as slippery as it should be.

Companies who aspire to use DIB as a competitive advantage, know they have to work extra hard with proactive interventions to fight against structural and cultural headwinds. 
Simply: DIB won’t fix itself.

The stakes are high when choosing how to best attack the DIB. It’s a long journey, and making early mistakes will be costly. We are inspired by the industry leaders, and strive to be fast followers in adopting what works well, and institutionalising it into our structure and culture.

On the diversity topic, we are starting by being proactive with interventions designed to overcome selected headwinds. A more refined measurement of workforce composition. Investing in unconscious bias trainings for recruiters and hiring managers to become aware of the brain errors that result from the way we make mental shortcuts. Demanding wider slate of finalists prior to hiring selection. Deep diving into compensation to avoid systematically leaving any populations behind.

These interventions are not being done to win awards. They are being done to increase innovation, become more customer-centric, access the full pool of global talent, and increase our competitiveness overall.

However, it is clear that in moving the needle on diversity when it comes to measurable results (for us, gender is a hot spot), there are no quick fixes, as evidenced by Facebook’s 5th annual diversity disclosures where statistical gains are observable but admitedly modest. This does not discredit their effort in any way, but just shows how difficult this cargo ship is to steer. It’s a bit-by-bit process, with no silver bullet. Just hard yards and commitment to excellence in execution, measurement, and culture.

The insidious byproduct of this slow-moving iceberg is that it somehow lets people off the hook with the sensation of “well, we’re doing the right things, but it just takes time.”

Nope. It’s not enough.

Shift to Inclusion: Invite people to dance

I was raised in a society in which there is implicit value in exclusivity. Exclusivity means you’ve made it. Eat at an exclusive restaurant. Attend an exclusive university. Become a member of an exclusive club. Build exclusive relationships. Stay at exclusive hotels. Access the exclusive airport lounge. It all smacks of success and social desirability.

The widespread social norms celebrating exclusivity are so pervasive that the word "inclusivity" is hardly even a thing. It should be.

What to do about it?

Be a leader and start being inclusive. Behave inclusively.

The beauty of focusing on inclusion, is it can happen instantly, by anyone in the organisation. It can start with me. It can start today.

Solving diversity is largely structural - and depends a lot on process. Solving inclusionis largely cultural - and depends mostly on behaviours.

Inclusion is*:
  • Hand selecting under-represented voices onto task forces, key initiatives, or to solicit informal feedback
  • Asking people to present their work at your staff meeting or all-hands
  • Inviting people to the table: invite to attend important meetings or calls
  • Widening your net of go-to lunch friends and seeking out people you don’t know
  • Allocating spots at events and conferences for people to join who haven’t before
  • Adding the non “usual suspects” to your group chat
  • Picking team-building events which appeal to a wider set of people
  • Recognising performance publicly of under-represented populations
  • Intentionally creating space and air for quieter voices to contribute
  • Proactively soliciting input. “What are your thoughts?"
  • Listening
  • Actually listening.

My aspiration is to instantly recognize my own instincts toward exclusion, and be intentional about overcoming them by becoming more naturally inclusive.

I start today.

Will you hold me accountable?

Care to join me on the dance floor?

*What ideas do you have to be more inclusive?

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