Saturday, March 15, 2008

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

[Note that you can listen to this item by using the embedded player below]

Lots of people talk nowadays about Equality and Diversity. They use the words or the expression without a thought. Yet – and I’m often guilty of this myself – there can be a risk of assuming that people know what the terms mean individually, and why they therefore support one-another when paired.

First of all – coming originally from the IT consulting industry – I’ll confess that I’m no stranger to people using words or abbreviations that leave others mystified. There’s an apocryphal tale from the days of huge mainframe computers in the 1970’s where a well-known bank’s central computer stopped working calamitously in the middle of the day’s trading.

You can picture the scene. Tellers sitting idle at their counters. Managers tearing their hair out... The on site engineer was summoned. He disappeared into the innards of the huge leviathan machine with his tools and emerged seconds later to inform the harassed data processing manager that he’d have to ring up for spares, as the computer needed a new AMD. The manager was understandably worried. Though he was a technologist himself the term was unfamiliar and sounded distinctly serious – and probably expensive.

Shortly afterwards the new AMD was fitted; the computer restarted and normal commerce was restored – so then the manager ventured to enquire more, so he could make a report to his superiors. What was an AMD, and why did its failure have such catastrophic results. The engineer raised his eyebrows and explained, as though addressing a child, that the letters AMD stood for “Air Movement Device”. The manager thought for a moment and then sought clarification... “Do you mean a fan?” The engineer nodded. The computer had overheated.

The point of that anecdote is to underline what a barrier jargon terms can be to understanding if you’re not very careful – and if you make assumptions about people sharing your vocabulary. But that brings me now to the second point. What happens when we pair words?

Take Ant and Dec for instance. Ant’s the one of the left I’m assured (I had to look it up on the Internet). But see how pairing two names transforms a pair of individual people into a single entity with no better distinguishing feature than where they stand? (At least with Morecambe and Wise you knew that Ernie Wise was the one with the short, fat, hairy legs).

Think of more serious examples. “Health and Safety”; “Black and Minority Ethnic”; “Lesbian and Gay”; maybe even “Peace and Goodwill”. Pairing words helps them roll off the tongue. The problem is that the pairing can mean that people think about the pair as a single idea, rather than remembering the reason someone chose to pair them in the first place. Often the pairing confuses the emphasis too. In health and safety it is the safety part we need to concentrate upon much of the time – the health bit follows naturally from that. Similarly ethnicity embraces far more than skin colour, yet many people often fall into the assumption that race issues start and finish with people who are a particular range of shades.

So what does that say for “Equality and Diversity”. Is that just one concept, or two related ones? And which of the two is the chicken, which the egg?

Let’s take them individually, starting with the first.

Equality, simplistically, is about seeking to ensure that all people are treated with a similar degree of respect and fairness in our world, regardless of who they are. For managers in private and public organisations it’s broadly the realm of “what you must do”. I say it that way because, in Britain, we now have a 30 plus year history of steadily adding one legal protection after another, to progressively protect more and more people from discrimination – whether in their employment or enjoying the use of goods and services.

Equality practice therefore starts with the legislators’ acknowledgment that people are different – and that it’s their difference from others that marks them out for unfair treatment. The mindset of non-discrimination legislation, till recently, has been about countering negative behaviour by giving people the tools to prosecute it. Our thinking about that has changed, of course, with the introduction of statutory duties to promote equality – but that’s a different talk for another time.

But let’s now look at Diversity....

Diversity is a posh word for difference. And you know why intellectuals use posh words. But if we’re to make all this stuff accessible and instinctive for everyone let’s stick with the simpler word for a moment...

Nature does difference awfully well – and it’s worth reflecting on why. Take Fish. Evolution hasn’t presented us with just one kind of fish in the sea, has it? There are millions of kinds. Why? Well, although (on the face of it) all fish share one very big similarity (they live in water), each species is specialised in a different way to bestow different advantages in different circumstances.

The same goes for insects. Or plants. And every living thing. If you’re religious then you could say that God really seems to love diversity.

All of that makes it odd that we humans seem to have so much difficulty applying that love to ourselves. After all, whether it’s evolution or a guiding hand that you believe in, it’s obvious that there just isn’t one kind of human. You’d think, with all this wonderful variation, that everyone would say “Wow, isn’t it wonderful that we’re all different”. Unfortunately the first instinct for many seems to be to think there’s a problem.

Let’s go back to the fishes: Is a Parrot Fish “better” than a Barracuda?

Or insects: Does an Aphid have less of a role to play than a ladybird? Is the only reason we kill spiders the fact that we’re frightened of them. I’m not too keen myself, yet I’ve allowed my house to be full of them, because they have a role to play. I don’t know what they’re eating under my bed or between the rafters, but I’ve got a shrewd idea that my self control may bring me some benefits that I can’t necessarily anticipate up-front.

That brings us back to the rationalisation of why protecting, nurturing and even encouraging difference is a valid thing in both business and society.

It’s not because the law says we have to. Like the chicken and the egg we have to remember that there were values that drove those laws to be enacted. Maybe the original motives had more to do with preventing the consequences of exclusion and division. Yet the umbrella of protection which equality law has created has also meant that there is the opportunity to realise something else.

To be simplistic again, I’ve said that equality is something people HAVE to address for legislative reasons. However, if you understand the promise of diversity then it's something that sane minded people should WANT to do, for the very best self interested reasons.

It may require a leap of faith before you encounter the examples which hammer the point home, but having a diverse workforce, or a diverse society – even a diverse collection of friends – pays dividends. It happens for the same reason that evolution made all those different kinds of fish, insects and mammals. And all those different kinds of people.

So, diversity is about recognising and celebrating the value of difference.

Smart organisations – smart societies – smart people – recognise that and create the environment where diversity can flourish and go on to deliver.

Equality is necessary to enable diversity to come through and thrive. If you can’t retain different people in your organisation they’re not going to be around to make – er – a difference.

The reason the two go together is therefore obvious. They are co-related.

Without diversity there would perhaps be no need for equality. That’s debateable. But it’s clear that equality is essential in order to foster and benefit from diversity.

It may be, of course, that rather like other paired expressions, we’ve got the order back to front. Just as we ought to think about Safety for Health, we perhaps ought to talk about Diversity and Equality. But I’ll leave you to debate that.