Diversity needs to go beyond corporate mission statements

Authors Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee say too many organisations are just paying lip service to being people-centred

 

Gareth Jones recalls witnessing a scene in a Dublin pub when a man fired a shoe at a TV screen at the announcement of the second AIB bank bailout. “There was a palpable sense of anger in the air. It dramatically captured the sense of how people can feel betrayed by organisations,” he tells The Irish Times.

Frustration about the lack of honesty and transparency and the disconnect people feel from capitalist corporations is a global phenomenon, but Jones is not making a political point here. As a HR practitioner turned academic and consultant, he is concerned that too many organisations are paying lip service to being people-centred as trust and engagement levels continue to plummet.

Together with his London School of Business colleague and co-author Rob Goffee, Jones has been researching what to do about it.

DREAMS qualities (see panel), with their emphasis on meaning, ethical values and transparency in organisational life, may seem obvious but they rarely feature in anything but corporate mission statements. Authenticity, a word much favoured by the authors, is an all-too-rare commodity too, it seems.

“Much of this seems obvious. Our research shows that when organisations try to tackle these issues they do so superficially,” Jones says. “They apply Band-aids to problems when they arise and seem ill-prepared to address underlying issues, which loom large. For 150 years, we have known that when people enjoy their work, they perform better. Why do organisations go out of their way to make work as unpleasant as possible?”

The influence of Taylor and comman- and-control styles of leadership is still evident.

“In this old paradigm, managers treated knowledge as power, exploited people rather than developed them and told falsehoods. It’s not surprising that Dilbert, a bible to organisational cynicism, is a best- seller,” he notes.

“There are lots of very successful people who no longer want to be part of organisations. Certain large multinational firms used to say that they recruited the brightest and the best. They don’t tend to say that anymore because the brightest and the best go and work for tech start-ups and social enterprises.”

Organisations that foster authenticity hire people because of their difference in thinking. Diversity needs to go way beyond ticking boxes in terms of gender and ethnicity to include diversity of perspective and diversity of experience. The price may involve rethinking organisational processes and structures but it’s one worth paying, he says.

Jones observes that the current senior partner of PwC, Ian Powell, who is considered hugely successful, has said that what really worries him is that these days he would not be recruited because he did not come from the right university and did not get a first-class degree. “He probably wouldn’t get through the first sort.”

“Creativity increases with diversity and declines with sameness. You need to code diversity into your DNA. You need not only to recruit for diversity, you need to embrace it.”

Being tolerant about difference involves practical things like designing performance measures that allow for creative surprises and you need to build slack into your organisation to encourage experimentation. Leaders should seek consensus around values while allowing creativity around behaviour.

Research, he adds, shows that human beings are characterised by excessive sociability whereas the modern corporation makes very different assumptions that we are all highly competitive and that we do not want to collaborate.

Sociability should not be confused with softness and fluffiness, however. Passion about work manifests itself in arguing your position. Conventional wisdom suggests that leaders should encourage what sociologists call cognitive conflict – the clash of ideas, while discouraging affective conflict, the clash of emotions. Jones and Goffee say that their research suggests otherwise and that a little clash of emotions may not be such a bad thing.

Jones, who in an earlier life worked for a record label, recalls managers virtually coming to “fisty-cuffs” over which track to leave off a Cranberries album.

Passionate argument is a feature too in one of his favourite organisations at the moment, Danish pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk, which also encompasses many of the key ideas in the book about meaningful work.

As its chief executive Lars Sorensen said in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review: “We bring patients in to see employees. We illuminate the big difference we’re making. Without our medication, 24 million people would suffer. There is nothing more motivating for people than to go to work and save people’s lives.” Why Should Anyone Work Here? by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones is published by Harvard Business Review Press.