Embracing diversity in a modern world

By: Lubna Haq


Complicated, stressful and taboo. Despite the effort of the last 20 years, the topic of diversity still seems to be perceived as a work place ‘problem’ to solve.  Why has change in this area been so hard to achieve?

This is even more puzzling when we know that people are fascinated by difference. The popularity of reality TV programmes such as Goggle box provide a window seat on the human race in all its many and glorious forms. Each of us are social anthropologists, eager for the opportunity to observe and perhaps understand. We are students of society, voyeurs on the people. We observe difference in action and are interested in how people interact and behave. We are, fundamentally, social animals.

But difference both attracts and repels. As human beings, we are most comfortable with those who we perceive are ‘like’ us.  We trust others we see as part of our ‘group’ and are suspicious of ‘outsiders.’ We are wired to be attracted to those who are like us.

This tendency also plays out in real life both here at home and abroad. Walls being built; refugees held at bay; nationalism displayed as people protect themselves against the unknown. Close to home, deep divisions have emerged following the Brexit vote, with people on both sides feeling like they don’t have a voice that is heard. For some in Britain, ‘us’ is only those who live on this small island whilst for others ‘us’ defines an identity grounded in Europe. Both identities evoke real passion.

So, thanks to digital media and our obsession with reality TV, there has never been a greater opportunity to embrace diversity and enhance our understanding of those who are different from ourselves. Equally, the shifting sands of identity and immigration mean that diversity and difference remain a cause of challenge.

Organisations have recognised this to some extent. However, most tackle the issue of diversity in silos. Their response is often a ‘tick box’ process of legal compliance or awareness training on unconscious bias on how to be non-discriminatory in the workplace. Diversity is still mainly defined along traditional lines such as race, gender, disability and sexuality.

With constant developments reshaping our societies and our organisations, it is time to put diversity at the heart of the change process. Successful change can only be achieved when people recognise and embrace other perspectives. Building a culture that embraces diversity should therefore be at the heart of change. Such a culture defines an organisation that is fearless, curious and questioning. It creates the conditions for a change in mind-set that moves away from being tentative, conservative and short sighted to being open minded and creative.

To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, I have a dream. In my brave new world, people will sit together, engage and communicate with openness, frankness, humility and empathy. Where people ask ‘is there a better way?’  Where people value the perspectives of those fresh and enthusiastic new entrants into the workplace in the same way they value those of seasoned senior leaders. Where integrating different views is the norm and where people are confident enough to check not only their own misconceptions and biases but also those of others – all in the spirit of personal development and growth. And where organisations fight to gain accolades to be industry role models and leaders in the diversity field.

Achieving this dream is a possibility. We can revolutionise our approach to diversity in a safe yet exciting way. We can reconsider how we interact with others in the context of our role as citizens of the world. We can create a sense of belonging in our organisations that supports a high performing culture. We can foster an environment where people enjoy working with others, leading to increased productivity and creativity as the norm.

Whatever your role in your organisation or society, we interact with others all the time. So let’s embrace the debate. Let’s be open about how we respond to situations based on our beliefs, values and attitudes. Let’s be proud of our individual, cultural and personal identities and talk about them both with safety and with pride.

How do we do this? There is no magic potion! The wizardry lies in combining what has been done in piecemeal ways before into a winning formula – bringing together robust frameworks with experiences that accost our senses allowing people to practice new behaviours in a safe and nurturing environment.

We started Claridade to support organisations to create this kind of environment. We want to be part of shaping the debate.  We’d love to hear your views.

Lubna Haq

Lubna is an experienced business leader. Most recently she worked as a partner in a global company responsible for designing and introducing leadership programmes targeted at middle managers.