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Why organisations avoid discussions around equality, diversity & inclusion

In our previous article, we positioned organisations as houses. For this article, we discuss how this house (an organisation) does not exist in a bubble but is situated in a neighbourhood, city, province and country. The effect of this is the understanding that all the issues, challenges, thoughts, beliefs and opinions that exist externally (in the neighbourhood and country) similarly impact the internal workings, emotions, attitudes and relationships within our house. Our organisations internally cannot be separated from the external. Whatever happens outside, happens inside, yet plays out differently.

The “Outside”

The current global zeitgeist is one of fear and anger. The rise in populism, nationalism, protectionism and mistrust of “the other” reflect these two emotions. The effect of this? Retraction and isolation to what is perceived to be “safe”: like-minded thinking, Echo chambers, shared beliefs and a defence of “truth” or one’s ideology. South Africa is not exempt. As one of the most unequal societies in the world, where politics seeks to drive division, not social cohesion and the conversation around who is more or less disadvantaged takes centre stage in our national discourse, the fears and anger of all South Africans find root within our organisations, whether we like it or not.

The issue, however, is that we know that the expression of our shared fears and anger are not welcomed within the workplace. Anachronistic organisational thinking dictates that employees arrive sanitised and ready to work; asked to leave “their baggage” in their respective vehicles and to be “professional”. It is this same thinking that is a major contributor to low engagement scores, poor participation, not feeling safe to speak up, exclusion and low trust scores within organisations. Why? Because the false reliance on being “professional” and “leaving your baggage outside” seeks to further entrench the South African climate of voicelessness.

White people feel completely voiceless in South Africa, particularly in discussions around EDI and transformation. Why? Because if white people say anything remotely not on brand they will be labelled a racist. So, to protect themselves, they put their heads down and disengage.  Black people within organisations, too, feel completely voiceless? Why, if black people speak out in support of EDI and transformation (or lack thereof), they are seen as the “radical black”, the “angry black”, the trouble-maker, as not being grateful. Indian and Coloured voices?! Well, when has that voice ever been listened to anyway?! Why now would they want to speak up? Let the white and black people fight it out as they have for years… Voicelessness. We all feel voiceless in South Africa, yet all feel terrified to speak up for fear of judgment and persecution.

This voicelessness exists within your organisation by virtue of the fact that it exists within society. Your engagement survey results reflect this, we guarantee it.

May the brave stand up 

As South Africans, we are all dying to speak and have our voice heard and legitimized, and rightly so! While many of us are having the tough conversations, we often have them in spaces where our points of view will be supported and reflected back to us. It’s safer. In (racially) mixed spaces, particularly in organisations, most people never have the chance to engage with EDI openly. Too scary! So, we avoid these discussions at all costs; instead opting to weather the negative effects: miscommunication, poor relationships of trust, offending others, micro-aggressions and exclusion, lack of career progression, attrition of talent and disengagement.

Without brave steps to open up dialogue and begin thinking about a diversity literacy within our organisations, these conversations are likely to remain on the periphery of our organisations, yet with the negative effects of voicelessness taking centre stage. Determining the flavour of leadership, our organisational brand positioning, our employee value proposition and our organisational culture.

Starting the conversation 

Having the “tough conversations” around equality, diversity and inclusion is no longer a nice-to-have, but essential for the healthy functioning of successful organisations. It is how we begin connecting and building trust. How we start exercising empathy and compassion. It is how we practice authentic leadership and demonstrate vulnerability. It how we learn how to manage and support “the other”. How we build team (read: social) cohesion. It is how we engage and drive engagement and participation. It is how we learn how to negotiate space and relationships.

It is the skill set of the future.

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