Beyond the Whisper: Diversity in Leadership

We need more people in the leadership that are not ___

If you are thinking what I’m thinking, we’ll say it on the count of 1…2…3


Ever been in a room where everyone nods their heads in perfect agreement? It's like a synchronized bobblehead convention, except the consequences can be far from cute.

Homogeneous groups tend to make mistakes and think alike, known as groupthink, while diverse groups engage in more rigorous decision-making, benefiting a wider range of people. Increasing diversity, especially in senior leadership, reduces biased language in organizations.

The call for greater diversity in leadership arises from the frustration of not seeing individuals who share similar experiences and perspectives represented in top positions. This lack of role models diminishes motivation for others to aspire to leadership roles.

Imagine if a man was the sole decision-maker on policies regarding menstrual leaves. It would undoubtedly leave women feeling disappointed and frustrated because their specific needs and struggles were not taken into consideration during the decision-making process.

“Unconscious bias often plays a significant role in organizations, particularly in startups in India. Despite company policies supporting maternity leave and flexible work hours, there is a lingering feeling of guilt among employees who believe they are not meeting their peers' expectations. Family and childcare responsibilities add to this burden, even in co-parenting situations or with the availability of paternity leave. Societal norms contribute to the baggage employees carry regarding these responsibilities.” Shubhra singh, people Manager, Nautilus Labs.

Then what should we do? Hire more diversity?

When it comes to enhancing diversity in leadership roles, many companies often resort to empty promises and mere words without taking meaningful action. They might talk about their intentions to create a well-rounded executive team, but it's all smoke and mirrors. To truly benefit from the advantages that diverse leaders bring (and there are plenty), organizations must take intelligent and strategic measures to attract a wider range of qualified candidates into their executive pipeline. Only then can they ensure that these candidates have the opportunity to occupy decision-making positions and contribute to the organization's success.

It's also important to note that representation based solely on surface-level attributes does not necessarily make people feel represented. This situation, known as Tokenism, occurs when organizations place individuals with similar demographics in leadership positions to create an appearance of caring about the needs of an underrepresented group, without making any meaningful changes.

As Zora Neale Hurston expressed, "Skinfolk ain't kinfolk" - simply sharing an identity does not make someone accountable to the needs of a community.

Trust, Not Just Numbers: Redefining Diversity for Lasting Change

Diversity goes beyond just the existence of differences in a particular environment. It is about the genuine experience of feeling acknowledged and represented by those in that environment, particularly when it comes to addressing historical and current inequalities. It requires creating a workforce composition that all stakeholders, especially underserved and marginalized populations, can trust to be representative and accountable. Achieving diversity involves taking deliberate actions to challenge existing inequities and meet the specific needs of all populations.

Asha* tells us “I had a personal experience in a startup where there was a situation involving different departments and their interactions. Specifically, the marketing department was enthusiastic and vocal, while the tech department required a quieter environment due to coding tasks. I raised this issue constructively with a male team member, but he took offence and felt I was trying to tell him how to manage his team. How can a female tell him what to do? The incident escalated and reached the founder, causing a chaotic situation.”

*Name changed for privacy

Lily Zheng in the book, “DEI Deconstructed”, questions another idea, “We'd be better off if every company aimed for representation that paralleled exactly the demographic makeup of its region or country. But if companies achieved representational parity somehow by hiring only people who weren't accountable to their communities, calls for "true diversity" would simply continue. And if a team of three people aimed for representational racial parity, it would be quite literally impossible to achieve; yet, many small teams are able to earn the label of "diverse" or "representative" without literally representing every social group imaginable.

Why is it that a leadership team of two White people and two non-White people, two of them men and two of them women, with one of them Lgbtqia, might still be accused of needing "more diversity," while a leadership team with nominally less representational parity might not?

It's trust, often achieved through representational parity but not always requiring it, that dictates whether we consider a given entity "diverse." If a diverse and varied group of stakeholders trust the organization and its leaders to represent and advocate for them, the actual minutiae of demographic representation percentages don't matter as much as we might think.”

Shifting the Focus

The prevailing narrative surrounding diversity often centres around the number of diverse hires, disregarding the importance of trust and genuine inclusion. Many resources online provide advice on meeting quotas and making token diversity hires to appease critics. This approach not only undervalues the candidates hired but also neglects the needs of small or infrequently hiring companies. A different perspective is needed to create lasting change.

Instead of solely focusing on checking off identity boxes, a new framework should be proposed. It suggests considering the communities important for the success of the startup and identifying the person who can effectively reach and engage those communities. By incorporating additional criteria alongside technical skills, organizations can take the first steps toward building a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Trust as the New Indicator

Rather than striving for representative parity, the new goal post becomes building a demographic composition that all populations trust as representative and accountable. While this may seem easier in some aspects, it presents unique challenges. Achieving trust requires organizations to go beyond surface-level diversity and create an environment where stakeholders genuinely feel seen and heard.

Shubhra Singh tells us “Many women tend to be hesitant in speaking up about their experiences, often discussing them off the record or privately with managers or colleagues. It's important for organizations to foster an environment of assertiveness and direct communication, where beating around the bush is discouraged. However, building confidence to voice concerns depends on the culture and support of the company. The truth is that speaking up comes with risks, including potential consequences such as termination of employment. Creating a safe space where feedback and opinions are encouraged, such as through stay interviews or involving women in decision-making processes, can provide the confidence needed to express oneself openly. I have personally found one firm that has given me the confidence to speak up about my experiences, and it makes a significant difference.”

The call for "more diversity" in environments that appear diverse on the surface, stems from a desire for a team that earns and maintains trust. It is not about simply increasing the number of diverse individuals, but rather about creating an inclusive workplace where trust is cultivated. A truly diverse organization goes beyond demographics and ensures that every individual, regardless of their identity, feels seen, heard, and valued by their leadership.

Organisations need to move beyond solely focusing on representational parity. Bringing in individuals from diverse backgrounds who have strong ties to the existing leadership team without challenging the status quo fails to create meaningful change. Diversity should not be defined solely by identities checked off on a list but by the actions and outcomes achieved by diverse individuals within the organization.

How to Fix it?

Leaders explored various solutions to address their challenges. One appealing option was to seek guidance from experts, educators, and coaches who could help the leadership team bridge their knowledge and experience gaps. They aimed to gain a sufficient understanding of DEI to effectively communicate it, consult experts on scaling and company culture, and receive coaching to enhance their mentoring and leadership skills.

However, a significant issue remained unresolved: the erosion of trust among employees due to multiple incidents that my have happened over time. The question arose: How could they regain that trust? A simple apology would not suffice, and merely committing to self-education might not be adequate either. Should they consider restructuring the organization as a solution?

Achieving DEI in high-trust environments follows a straightforward, linear path involving various stages: preparing organizations for change, assessing the current situation, storytelling, careful experimentation, iterative improvements, and celebrating successes.

In medium-trust environments, achieving DEI requires careful attention to maintain sufficient trust while implementing a non-linear approach to change. Leaders need to balance the structured roadmap of high-trust environments with ongoing efforts to build and sustain stakeholder trust. This can be achieved by aligning personal success with DEI outcomes, establishing accountability groups like DEI councils, empowering stakeholders without leadership titles to participate, and starting with small wins that gradually scale up as trust grows.

In low-trust environments, achieving DEI necessitates rebuilding trust to reach a medium-trust level first. Leaders should prioritize transforming their environment into a medium-trust setting, whether through DEI initiatives or other organizational changes. Strategies such as allowing disadvantaged stakeholders to initiate actions, relinquishing power, and seizing opportunities for significant advancements can expedite this process.

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