Thinking outside the square


Paula Bennett’s appointment as Deputy Prime Minister heralds a new era in New Zealand politics and is a nod to the changing demographics of our country.

New Zealand is visibly changing and nowhere is this change more evident than in our workplaces.

There are many indications, however, that workplace diversity has yet to be truly appreciated and valued. So it’s great that, for the first time ever, the Deloitte IPANZ 2017 Public Sector Awards includes a category that recognises organisations focussed on Improving Diversity and Inclusiveness.

There is growing recognition that diversity is not just fair but makes business sense – whether it’s through harnessing diversity of thought and experiences or gaining access to and understanding previously untapped market segments. There is a wealth of research available – everywhere from the Harvard Business Review to business consultancy reports – which espouses the value of diversity and the greater profitability of companies that manage this well.

While diversity brings advantages, too often diversity and inclusion are seen as the domain of HR professionals and focused on recruitment and reporting demographic data. Surely people contribute more than the numbers they represent on a pie chart in an annual report? If they are to deliver results, however, diversity and inclusion guidelines need to be genuine, rather than simply focusing on how best to manage differences or celebrate cultural festivals.

Harnessing the true value of diversity needs to go beyond HR teams. It needs to start with the leadership team and permeate throughout the organisation; and diversity needs to be considered in more than ethnicity or gender terms. Diversity also encompasses age, religion, sexual orientation, disability… the list goes on. At its heart though, it’s about tolerance and inclusiveness.

Some organisations deal with diversity through affirmative action, like recruitment policies that are colour and gender-blind. But at the same time, many of these very organisations emphasise the need to hire for “cultural fit”, which once again allows a dominant culture to subsume others, and minorities and women continue to stagnate and plateau when they are not valued.

I consider myself to be “diverse”. I am a young-ish, brown, female, of Asian ethnicity, born in the South Pacific, of a minority religious affiliation, and a migrant. My “diversity” was a strength in a 10-year career working for New Zealand government agencies across Asia. It offered me a cultural capability that isn’t learnt, it is who I am.

When I was appointed New Zealand Trade Commissioner to Singapore (in 2010) there were questions as to whether someone who didn’t “look Kiwi” and wasn’t one of the lads would be able to do the job. Just because I wasn’t one of the boys didn’t mean I couldn’t develop relationships with them to deliver the best outcomes for New Zealand businesses. In fact, understanding Asian values meant I understood Asian customer and staff motivations, and my team consistently exceeded targets. The people who appointed me to senior roles were Pakeha males. They looked at ability and potential – not my skin colour or age.

The role of a leader is not just to make people feel welcome but to ensure they feel safe and empowered to engage and contribute. Ask yourself – if your team was interviewed would they say that the organisation actively seeks their perspective? Or would they say the organisation hears what it wants to hear?

I recently led a team of Indians, Malaysians, Thai, Indonesians, Vietnamese, and New Zealanders including a “Christchurch old boy”, and Kiwis with Greek, Italian and Samoan heritage. I learnt that one size certainly didn’t fit all. There were different motivators, even among the group of Kiwis. I had to consciously unpick unconscious biases and stereotypes.

Businesses spend a lot of time and money understanding their customers. If the same level of attention is paid to understanding staff – the returns could be much greater. Regardless of what type of organisation you work in, a team that is well engaged is a team that will deliver well. A protocol on diversity and inclusion is a start – but a manual doesn’t touch hearts and minds. Engagement needs to be deliberate and tailored. It needs to be genuine.

We live in a world where most things can be customised to the individual level. Communications and engagement needs to follow suit. Staff can’t and shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into boxes based on nationality, ethnicity, gender or age. If you put people in boxes, they will never think / deliver for you outside the square.

To learn more about leadership communications and supporting diversity in the workplace, contact Ziena Jalil.