John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers Briggs Company asks, Is this the way ahead for diversity?

Way back in early March, when the pandemic was getting underway in the UK, the coronavirus was seen as something that impacted everyone without discrimination. Surely, it was thought, a virus would not care whether you are black or white, or male or female, rich or poor. Of course, it has become very clear that this is not the case. Research by Public Health England shows that older people are more likely to be severely affected than younger people, men more than women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups more than white groups, and those on lower incomes more than those on higher incomes.

These discrepancies have and continue to have an adverse effect on diversity in the workplace. Things were hardly perfect before; the latest figures suggest that just eleven per cent of executive directors in FTSE100 companies are women and that only 2% of executive directors of the top 150 FTSE companies would describe themselves as black or minority ethnic. But the coronavirus has the potential to exacerbate this situation still further. There are several reasons for this, including:

  • Many people have been able to switch to working from home during the pandemic, but many others have not, especially those in lower paid manual jobs, many of whom have been furloughed or laid off. People in these roles are disproportionately more likely to be women and/or from a BAME background, with the result that the UK workplace is becoming less diverse.
  • Frontline workers are also more likely be women and/or from a BAME background. By the nature of their jobs they are more likely to be infected and thereby to be incapacitated in the short term or in some cases the longer term (or worse).
  • Childcare has become an issue during the pandemic, but the additional burden has tended to fall more on women than on men. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that mothers are more likely than fathers to have quit or lost their job, or to have been furloughed, since the start of the lockdown. Mothers in paid work now spend a third less hours at their job than do fathers, and during the time that they are working, they are interrupted significantly more often. In our own research at the Myers-Briggs Company, we found that women were significantly more concerned than men about having children at home for an extended period, and were finding it more difficult to remain focused when they were working from home. The net result is that mothers will have had less time to concentrate on their jobs than fathers, which could have a significant long-term adverse effect on their careers. This may be compounded by feelings of survivor guilt; we found that women were more likely than men to feel guilty about still being in work when others had been laid off or furloughed.
  • Other research has shown that BAME women have been more severely affected by the pandemic than white women.

So, it seems as if we may be drifting towards a less diverse workplace, and maybe one in which less attention is paid to issues of diversity and inclusion. Many organizations are faced with falling sales, fewer staff trying to do the same amount of work, and other problems. When the business is desperately trying just to keep the lights on and stay afloat, other considerations will take a back seat. Many businesses welcomed the government’s move to suspend the need for gender pay gap reporting as this meant there was one less task to do, and half have not published figures this year. However, this could mean that organizations see diversity issues as less important at the moment.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In times of crisis, it is even more important that organizations have a diversity of people, ideas, and attitudes. There is for example solid evidence that companies with female representation at board level perform better than those that do not. One of the beneficial effects of diversity, especially in the current situation, is that it can act as a counter to ‘groupthink’. In the rush to make a decision and do something, data and opinions that run counter to the line of thinking put forward by majority, or by a leader, are often glossed over. Retrospective analyses of failed projects typically reveal that concerns surfaced early on but were then ignored, with those who signalled the red flags being marginalized or excluded. In this context, it is interesting to note that research shows that men are more likely to be overconfident about their abilities than women, even in cases where women have an objectively higher level of ability – a phenomenon which may have the effect of further reinforcing the glass ceiling.

How can groupthink be avoided? How can organizations ensure that diverse voices are listened to? One answer is to take action to increase the self-awareness of managers and their teams. By becoming more aware of their own personality, behavioural style and biases, people can make more informed decisions, and overcome the effects of groupthink. Leaders can appreciate their own strengths and limitations and begin to see the value of alternative views. This more accurate self-perception results in better performance. For example, a recent study carried out for the Royal Navy found that more self-aware leaders were better at adjusting their leadership style as circumstances changed.

Unfortunately, self-awareness isn’t a common quality; research by The Eurich Group suggests that only ten to fifteen per cent of people can be described as ‘self-aware’. Fortunately, there are many ways in which individuals can increase their self-awareness (coaching, for example), but one of the most cost-effective is the use of personality questionnaires such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment. Using this or similar tools helps people to understand why they tend to think and act in particular ways and also how they differ from other people. Crucially, these differences are presented in a positive way. Rather than being a source of possible conflict, such differences in personality and attitude become an opportunity for collaboration, building on the strengths of individuals in a team while compensating for each other’s blind spots.

This increased awareness of others’ personality can greatly enhance the way in which a team solves problems, avoiding groupthink. Problem-solving typically involves two phases; gathering information and then using that information to make a decision. In the information-gathering phase, some individuals will tend to pay much more attention to the lessons of past experience and to specifics; others will be more focused on the big picture and on the future. Both are needed, but without any direction, the strongest or loudest voices will prevail. In a MBTI-facilitated session, equal time is allocated to both approaches, allowing a diversity of views to be aired. In the next stage, some people will naturally tend to make their decisions on the basis of objective logic, often neglecting to consider the effect that the decision will have on people; others will take the opposite approach. Using the MBTI assessment creates a framework that allows both approaches to be heard and given equal airtime, resulting in a more balanced decision.

Increasing the self-awareness of employees does not of course automatically compensate for the decay in diversity currently being seen in UK businesses. But it does enhance people’s appreciation of other approaches and other points of view. By helping individuals and teams to understand the importance of a diversity of personality, it opens the door to an understanding of the importance, and the advantages, of other forms of diversity too, and starts to build a more inclusive view of the world. And as we weather the storms of coronavirus and look out at a changed business landscape, this can only be a good thing.

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