In the business world there is a growing awareness that the ability to work in racially, culturally and sexually diverse groups is the key to success. Some commentators refer to “diversity advantage”, suggesting that the companies most comfortable with diversity have a competitive advantage. If the best software programmer lives in Bangalore you have to work with them no matter what. If a Dutch woman tops the monthly sales charts, her skills need to be maximised and learned from.
Now, the legal profession is taking note. As The Lawyer recently reported (28 February), a document produced by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Law Society and the Bar Council says that aspiring silks must possess “an understanding of diversity and cultural issues” as well as being team players.
In the past, the debate about diversity tended to become mired in political correctness. In many cases the rights and wrongs of strategies, such as positive discrimination, have obscured the issues. Notwithstanding its tradition as a cultural melting pot, in the US attention has focused on racial divides rather than the benefits of diversity. As a consequence, diversity has been viewed as a problem rather than a solution.
In Europe, on the other hand, diversity has tended to be a cultural rather than a racial issue. Getting along with other cultures is axiomatic to living in modern Europe. Relations may not always be harmonious, but diversity is generally accepted as a fact of life, though not necessarily of working life.
So, how can you make diversity work? How do you create an environment in which diversity is understood and cultural issues are sensitively managed?
First, you must – as the legal profession is in the process of doing – establish clear and measurable performance standards. Talk of awareness and understanding is cheap. Effective implementation requires that recruitment, performance and rewards are all tied to key performance measures. If something is important it demands measurement and monitoring. As well as setting clear standards and benchmarks, and constantly making the case, there is also a need for support. In particular, coaching can play a part in helping people become more aware of their behaviour and in changing it. Old silks can learn new tricks.
Research tells us that we are bad at evaluating our own behaviour. Coaching provides a mechanism for us to understand, through objective observation and feedback, how our behaviour impacts our work performance. Coaches ‘shadow’ their coachee at work and then build a comprehensive feedback picture that gets to the heart of behavioural issues with real life examples. Individuals can then be guided through a process of identifying behaviours they need to change and measurable ways to effect those changes.
Second, the case for change needs to be made – continually. Greater diversity and sensitivity to culture improve performance. These are not marginal issues, but lie at the heart of organisational and personal effectiveness.
Change is happening. Forward-thinking firms are tackling issues such as globalisation by embracing behavioural change at all levels. Personal development initiatives, such as coaching, are used at senior partner level to drive cultural change from the top, and new partner development programmes introduce correct behaviour at pivotal career milestones.
Participation – in the work place, in the community, and in the legal profession – is best achieved through creating conditions that allow people to retain their identity and sense of self-worth. By celebrating diversity, we are better able to combine human talents and knowledge. The case for diversity is compelling.
Chris Parry is chief executive of leadership consultancy the Centre for High Performance Development