How can we truly value diversity?
Updated: Jun 17
To celebrate the launch of NHS England’s new guide on how to create diverse boards (which we were privileged to author) we’re publishing a series of posts on how to make diversity part of the fabric of your organisation. All these posts are modified versions of what’s in the guide, so if you want more info make sure you download it (it’s free!).
Last time we asked why team diversity is important and came up with some (hopefully) surprising answers. This time, we want to think about what ‘diversity’ actually means. Again, we think our answer might surprise you.
A heads up first. This post is mainly about boards. A lot of the ideas do apply more generally to leadership teams, but if this is what you’re interested it’s probably best if you drop us a line so we can give some advice based on an understanding of your organisation’s unique circumstances.
That being said, here’s a first stab at an answer to the question, ‘what does board diversity mean?’:
a truly diverse board challenges its membership to move beyond its traditional value set to respond to the dynamic needs of the community it serves. It holds all responsible for upholding the principles of human rights and for ensuring that these are used to shape decisions and entitlements.
Note that this definition talks about values rather than identity. By ‘diversity’ we don’t (just) mean diversity in gender, ethnicity, disability, and so on. As important as it is to measure and respond to the outcomes these groups receive, focusing solely on representation can only get us so far. Here are some reasons why:
given the hyper diverse society we live in, trying to represent every underrepresented community – and the diversity within those communities – is an impossible task. Better to strive to reflect diversity than to represent it
short-term measures to increase the ‘diversity’ of a board do little to change its culture. As such, new people recruited onto it may still feel marginalised and ignored, ultimately leading to them leaving
the decisions of people from underrepresented groups are not inevitably more likely to uphold the principles of equality than anyone else’s. Promoting equality is a competence that has to be learnt: it’s not a natural ability people from marginalised groups automatically have
expecting individuals to ‘represent’ an aspect of someone’s identity is totally dismissive of all the other dimensions of their lives. Failing to recognise intersectionality – all the facets of our identity, including class, gender, disability, etc – can lead to stereotyping and making assumptions about the diversity of experience that people bring
We clearly need a greater diversity of people and the under representation of underrepresented groups is important. However, simply changing the demographics of a board is not enough.
So what is? A board that truly values diversity upholds the following principles:
Awareness of bias: we each have values and cultures of our own. We often ‘see’ and – more importantly – ‘judge’ others based on these. A board committed to equality develops individuals’ awareness and understanding of their own biases.
Inclusivity: board values and behaviours can have a powerful impact on others who join the board but aren’t part of these ‘norms’ or do not fully understand the ‘rules’. Often board members do not appreciate the impact their unspoken behaviour can have on those around them. They set the tone: others conform to it. A fair board is conscious of its collective behaviour. It challenges itself to see its functions from the perspectives of others. And its members recognise their role as leaders of culture, setting the values and behaviours they wants others to acquire.
Shared decision making: in dysfunctional boards power lies with the few. A diverse board recognises that boards will be complicated by power and privilege and better decisions may arrive through healthy debate and challenge.
Modelling behaviour: boards help set the priorities for an organisation through the questions they ask, the information they demand to see, the successes they highlight. As such, board members, as leaders, must embody the values they want the organisation to uphold.
Being ‘ok’ with conflict: many boards try to work towards some level of consensus. As natural as this is, it’s important to recognise that promoting diversity means accepting that people will not always agree. As mentioned in the point above about decision making, our inherent belief that conflict is a bad thing can often prevent people from voicing different opinions. To really gain from diversity board members need to understand how to work through challenge and conflict.
How does that sound? Clear as mud? Remember, all this is based on NHS England’s new guide, NHS workforce race equality: A case for diverse boards. So if you want more context you’ll find it there. You can also drop us a line and have a chat.