The unwritten rules that destroy our businesses

When Chuck Stephens, head of diversity and inclusion for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Google, walked on stage at Virgin Disruptors, I’d be lying if I said I wasn't puzzled. 'Diversity and Inclusion', was that some kind of new-age HR title? Within minutes, Stephens asked everyone to write their name on a piece of paper, and then again but with their non-dominant hand. 

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What you will learn from reading this article:

  • The dangers of unconscious biases
  • Recruiting for inclusion, redefining success and why 80 per cent of employees don’t care about their companies
  • Shining a light on our 'inclusion narrative’ 

“Does anybody else feel that weird sense of angst when they can’t seem to write their name properly?” asked Stephens. “I’m a type A personality, I like to achieve, and seeing my name scribbled down makes me feel almost physically ill.”

My puzzlement continued. Stephens went on.

“That angst is a wonderful metaphor for the experience of people you work with, and their reality of being in your leadership team or in your organisation. This is because the rules that we use to enable our people aren’t always aligned with how different kinds of people are used to operating.”

I began to understand that Stephens was talking about: the unwritten rules that exist in our management styles and organisational cultures that drive almost every aspect of how a business works. From how we recruit to how we market and design products, we’re guided by an invisible hand that reflects our subconscious biases that are products of how we’ve learned to see the world and how we’ve come to understand it. 

Virgin Disruptors 2016: Chuck Stephens

These biases, Stephens told us, have profound implications on how organisations work and businesses perform. The problem is that whilst the research shows stark correlations between organisational diversity and business performance, common practice hasn’t caught up. I asked Stephens whether Google fell into this category. 

“Not that long ago Google recruited from a pool of 30 universities around the world,” Stephens told me. "Florida State University where I went, while a decent school for labour economics, was nowhere near that list. I still meet people today who say to me ‘Google would never want me to work there’”. 

But times are changing. 

“During my time at Google,” Stephens continued, “we’ve expanded the pool from 20 schools to over 300, and we did it by fundamentally re-evaluating what it means to be successful. Somebody who’s had to pay their own way through university has likely had a very different set of life experiences than somebody who’s hasn't, and you could argue that the former are equally, if not better prepared to be successful in business.”

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Two and a half million people submitted CVs to Google last year alone. Until recently it was an easy argument to pick the name of the school as a basic indicator of potential.

“Is there a strong link between academic achievement and performance? The research is showing that it’s not as definite as we thought.”

Whilst I understood the necessity for diversity, I wondered what problems a lack of organisational inclusion actually caused. For Stephens, companies suffer from a sterilised ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing their people that fails to account for the nuanced cultural differences between individuals.

The result is a bland standardisation, where people are encouraged to toe the party line rather than find innovative ways to make their differences work for the betterment of the company. People feel increasingly detached from their organisations, with catastrophic consequences. 

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“A McKinsey study showed that 80 per cent of employees don’t care about their company's principles and priorities. Fewer than a third of your workforce is actively engaged in helping you be successful. I don’t know about you, but that kinda scares the hell out of me as a leader. How can I be successful, regardless of if I’m in a 40,000 person organisation or a 20 person organisation, if I can’t create a connectivity and cohesion between people?”

The stark absence of organisational cohesion, Stephens argues, is largely the result of our modern culture of political correctness, where certain subjects are ‘off the table’ in the workplace. 

“In the US we tend not to talk about politics or religion, and in the UK it seems to be that we don’t talk about where we live or went to school as those things could denote class. We have to do a better job of bringing these conversations into the workplace in a very different way than we have of late.”

Perhaps the most memorable takeaway from Stephen’s talk was what he called an ‘inclusion narrative’. This is essentially the connection between our past experiences and our current worldview. The idea is that if we’re better able to understand that our perspectives are the sum total of our collective experience, then we’ll be well placed to be mindful and respectful of others whose perspectives may differ. 

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Stephens gave the example of his own inclusion narrative, where he grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Stephens told us how his grandmother once disciplined him in no uncertain terms for referring to a black woman as ‘ma’am’. It was when he heard a statistic that black children were five times more likely to drown because their parents weren’t allowed access to the public swimming pools, the same pools that Stephen’s himself had swam in, that he realised that he was surrounded by differing realities.

The point, as Stephens himself put it, is that a fish doesn’t know it’s in water. The world is awash with unconscious bias without even knowing it, and yet the adverse results are there for all to see. 

I’m not puzzled anymore. 

If you joined us in London and would like to share your highlights, and how you've been inspired to make a change in your world, drop us an email on social.media@virgin.com with the subject Virgin Disruptors 2016.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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