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The necessity of discomfort

Diversity and inclusion are on the agenda for organisations worldwide. The driver is for more fair and equitable outcomes. Or is it?

The selling point is often that it's good for the bottom line—and that it fosters innovation. I've got no argument with expecting a return on investment, but I question whether the emphasis on financial returns limits the possibility of action for fair and equitable outcomes.

Does framing diversity and inclusion as 'good for business' lose sight of the argument for fairness and equity? This 2016 paper What is good isn't always fair found the 'good for business' approach led to broader definitions of diversity, and those led to deprioritising black candidates in controlled studies.

When wider dimensions of our ways of being and behaviour are seen as constituting diversity, a hierarchy evolves for valuing things such as language skills, cultural fluency, sporting prowess. People in groups whose diversity has traditionally not been valued fall even further down the hierarchy; they're even less likely to be included.

An homogenous workforce is an obvious sign of a lack of diversity. Somewhere along the line, recruitment and retention policies made it easier for a certain sort of person to join and stay. Once an homogenous workforce is in place, it becomes harder to create a momentum for change. People within it are likely to feel included. There's comfort in being surrounded by people like you, not having to explain preferences, references, and habits. Doesn't everyone see it, do it, eat it that way?

Broadening definitions of diversity can help us become more self-aware and more open and empathetic to the experience of others. Where the magic happens is when that leads to questioning what the dominant culture can do differently to include those who have traditionally been excluded.

Close up of spiky cactus.
You can't always avoid the spikes. Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Which is where the necessity of discomfort comes in for those who are part of the dominant culture. To really make a difference, diversity and inclusion programmes need to address the imbalances of power that inhibit their progress.

Addressing an imbalance of power means redistributing power. Which means anyone for whom the status quo was working perfectly is likely to feel that life has become a little less fair. Which sucks. The sweeteners are the delayed gratification of believing that discomfort now will lead to a better future.

This is much harder sell than 'good for business'. Leading for inclusion requires moral leadership, long-term commitment, and bravery. Jennifer Brown's Inclusive Leader Continuum captures the idea of a work in progress, moving through unaware, aware, active, and advocate, and reminds you that you'll probably take several trips along the path.

We can all take the lead in our own lives: embrace diversity, increase inclusion—accept discomfort.


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