What’s stopping businesses achieving their diversity goals – strategy or culture?

by | May 2, 2019

What’s stopping businesses achieving their diversity goals – Strategy or Culture?

Like many people, I’ve been awe inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish school girl, who created a global mass movement that has got us all focused on the need for urgent environmental change. It makes you feel as though change is possible.

Greta has energised people and politicians alike, by challenging the belief that climate change is a peripheral political problem and not the responsibility of the current generation in power.

The question now is whether those in power will actually put climate change at the heart of political decisions and just as importantly, whether individually, we will change our day-to-day behaviours?

Many of us get the importance of saving the environment and the subsequent need for changing our consumer habits. And although most of us are making small adjustments, are we really prepared to initiate a more radical overhaul of our consumer behaviours?

Probably not.

Why? Because we are comfortable with what we know and do. And with busy lives, we may default to what is easiest and most expedient.

We might also question whether our personal efforts will make any difference. After all, if our political leaders, and those from overseas, seem unwilling to set and deliver on necessary targets, we might rightly feel that our individual efforts will be in vain.

What’s missing, says Greta, is that governments must put climate change at the heart of all decision-making.

How does this link to Diversity & Inclusion?

Whilst there is certainly some good news in the D&I space, more-often-than-not, we hear that D&I is not moving at the pace it should.

Why is that?

Especially when many forward-looking businesses have set clear strategic diversity targets, hired a D&I specialist, and have rolled out various training programmes.

Like the environment, intellectually we get the importance of D&I, we just don’t always do the things, on a day-to-day basis, which support it.

This is because it would demand our attention and our efforts when we are already overwhelmed by our current responsibilities. It might require us to change our beliefs and behaviours, invest in new processes and new approaches. It might require new budgets and burden us with new accountabilities, which may not even give us the instant results we want.

Excuses, excuses.

Just as people can excuse away the need for urgent environmental change, so businesses can excuse their need for urgent comprehensive action on diversity.

Excuses and obfuscation are normal human behaviours, but they’re also the enemy of success. In terms of social and ethnic diversity, we’ve all heard the following:

  • There isn’t the right volume or calibre of diverse talent
  • They don’t go to the top universities or have the degrees we want
  • They lack the necessary CV experience and branded internships
  • They lack the communication, soft skills and business polish required
  • They don’t have the right tech skillsThey don’t know how to navigate our assessment processes well
  • “We are concerned about cultural fit”
  • “We are focusing on gender, as that’s more realistically achievable than ethnicity”
  • “Our stores are hugely diverse” or “Our overseas operations are entirely non-white”
  • “We have too many other business demands right now for this to be a priority”
  • “We think it would be counter-productive to set targets”

Because culture and people’s behaviour are so hard to change, and every day has another demanding ‘something’ that needs our urgent attention, businesses don’t change very quickly. To help justify the awkward lack of diversity results, we offer up excuses in the form explanations, which make us feel better, secretly hoping it will get resolved with time or by someone else. All the while, slowly, our businesses become less competitive.

The truth is, in our busy worlds, people fall back to what they know, what’s convenient, what’s always been done, what’s expected, what’s easy, and what people feel comfortable with – that’s a large part of what creates culture. And as Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Our desired diversity outcomes, like environmental ones, can seem so problematic, so complex and remote that we avoid doing what it takes to obtain the benefits.

We forget that it’s the small actions – our day-to-day decisions and behaviours – that makes as much difference as a strategy. Individually, we don’t always remember how our actions, communications and behaviours connect to our organisations D&I strategies. Eventually, due to lack of success, we lose our commitment, agency and engagement to D&I.


Every business needs clear leadership on D&I, as well as clear strategy and well-designed D&I programmes and processes, but it also needs its people to understand the part they play in why D&I ambitions aren’t being met.

If businesses are to remain competitive, they will need to offer different solutions in the future. History is littered with businesses that didn’t innovate or change quickly enough, there are always explanations and excuses.

We either embrace change or it will be forced on us. Great, forward-looking businesses embrace change because they want the benefit, even when they understand the challenge.

An idea for change

How about leaders send regular, company-wide emails that acknowledge the small, everyday behaviours from individuals in the business. This will have the benefit of highlighting and driving the right inclusive attitudes, as well as making sure it’s D&I strategies are aligned to individual behaviours and cultures within the business.


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