Workplace Inequality: An Inconvenient Truth

A conversation with John Amaechi OBE, Founder and
CEO of Amaechi performance

 
 
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Anyone who has seen John Amaechi speak in person knows that when he's talking, you listen. Most people would assume that's down to the former NBA stars 6ft 10in frame. But watch any of the YouTube videos covering his public appearances and it becomes clear that the real impact comes from his carefully selected words and a finely crafted delivery.

 
 

We spent an hour with John discussing identity, stereotypes and the fundamental challenges preventing meaningful progress for equality in the workplace. 

John Storer: Inequality in all its forms is headline news at the moment. Have you felt a shift in the last 12 months in terms of both acknowledgment of the differing approaches to solving issue of inequality in the workplace, and an acceptance of the problem itself?

John Amaechi: No, not really. Maybe this is something of a value judgement, but what we do have is a lot of noise being flung back and forth between well-meaning people who don’t quite understand the issue, but have a sense of fairness being violated, and scared people on the other side, who have a sense of their rights being in a zero-sum game. This idea that if someone else is getting more, they must be getting less. And I think your own data tells you we’re in a backlash situation now where more people than ever, more mainstream, straight, white, older men, feel as though their rights are being violated by the advances of women, the advances of LGBT people, by the advances of BAME communities. We’re in a weird echo chamber where very little effective work is being done.

What is the most pervasive piece of work being done now? Probably unconscious bias training. What is the most pervasive problem in most workplaces? Probably not unconscious bias.

J.S: And a lot of evidence suggests unconscious bias training is ineffectual?

J.A: Well of course it doesn’t work. If the problem you are trying to address is not unconscious bias then unconscious bias training won’t address it. It’s like learning to speak Spanish to go to France. It’s not that it’s not useful, but it’s not useful for the purpose you are using it for.

 

 
 John Amaechi speaks at the Financial Times 'Women at the Top' summit. 

John Amaechi speaks at the Financial Times 'Women at the Top' summit. 

 

J.S: We watched your panel appearance at the Financial Times’ Woman at the Top event and I was particularly interested in what you said about incongruence, and the gap between what companies present on their websites and the reality of the workplace. Let’s say initiatives like unconscious bias training and blind CV reviews work when it comes to the issue of hiring from minority groups. We see a sharp increase in companies hiring from these groups, but when they arrive they find themselves in an environment that is relatively inhospitable to them. What do you see as being the potential damage of a situation like that? Where people get the green light to go ahead and chase their aspirations but when they arrive, the promised land doesn’t exist?

There is something worse than no access. And that is being told you can participate but having an experience when you get there that you’re not wanted. And that is the essence of exclusion.
— John Amaechi OBE

J.A: No minority is fooled by this idea that the promised land exists. My promised land is in this space here. On this balcony patio. This is the space that I can guarantee that I will not be besmirched, stereotyped or otherwise. The moment I stand on this far end and look over the top, then suddenly, it’s a different situation.

But in terms of the workplace, there is something worse than no access. And that is being told you can participate but having an experience when you get there that you’re not wanted. And that is the essence of exclusion. Being present is not the problem, that’s why diversity is not the issue. That’s why the numbers game will only take us so far. It’s about whether women can be as they are, instead of having to be assertive and lead like a man. I use far more 3 syllable words than I need to.  I know far more 3 syllable words than I need too to get the job done. But I need them to help remind people that I’m clever.

 

J.S: That’s interesting. I’ve recently been introduced to a lot of James Baldwin’s work, and that’s part of his narrative around his experience. This idea of feeling like you need a façade in order to be heard, to succeed.

J.A: Yes. And the thing is it’s not fictional. It’s not even that you feel you need to. You must in order to thrive. And that’s an energy expense, that’s a cognitive burden that is not placed on your colleagues.

 

J.S: How do we start to prepare kids at any age group for that reality? What can we do at an educational level? What conversations do we need to have, whether that’s in school or at home?

Growth mindsets infographic created by Nigel Holmes

J.A: Well the challenge doesn’t necessarily lie with the children; some of the challenge is with the teachers. There’s a lot of work out there on this but I often cite Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets (.pdf) when discussing this subject. I’d recommend anyone who is involved in any level of education, even corporate L&D, to study her work.

And I think a lot of graduate programmes are plagued by the idea that managers just don’t think that people from certain backgrounds should be able to cope, and if they do faintly well they say, “oh that’s great, well done”, even when they know that ‘faintly well’ isn’t good enough to get them through.

J.S: I have to say I’ve never heard that at the level of a graduate programme. Is there evidence out there for that level of stereotyping?

J.A: Of course. Non-traditional is all you need to say about somebody to know what they look like. Non-traditional, no undergraduate education. And what you’re going to deal with in your head, as a manager, is someone who is a bit rough around the edges. You’re asking questions like are they going to be able to talk to clients or embarrass me? Are they going to swear in the office? Are they going to know how to fit in? Also, the implicit thing is that if you haven’t taken a traditional route through formal education then you’re not very clever. Apprenticeships are still there to be mocked. We’re doing this as a charity case for you, not because you can contribute.

J.S: Do you think that’s starting to change? In terms of that view point of apprenticeships and whether they are a valid alternative to a traditional degree?

J.A: The government’s perspective on them has changed. And therefore, corporations’ perspectives on apprenticeships have changed because the levy must be utilised, otherwise it’s a tax. BUT, the public perception? No I don’t think it’s changed all that much.  

J.S: That takes us on to an interesting point, looking at the role organisations have to play. Do you think the issue of inequality is being too compartmentalised? So, organisations are being told it’s their problem, and they’re acting in one way, the education services are acting in another way and there’s potentially another divide between both of those groups and what’s being said at a policy level. They’re all pushing initiatives independently when we should really be asking everyone to work together.

J.A: Some organisations are taking it seriously. I sit on one of the sub-boards of a big 4 accountancy firm and this board looks at issues of inclusion and social mobility and I honestly think the people in that group are deadly serious about tackling these issues, not just for ‘nice to have reasons’ and not just because of the new transparency law, but because they honestly believe that they are missing a trick in terms of being able to relate to their clients and their customers and also for them to say that they have really been able to grab the best talent. But, if you move past companies who can see a direct self-interest in terms of replenishing their workforce, in terms of engendering better levels of productivity; once you get outside of that and start talking about big brands that don’t necessarily gain anything, it’s just social marketing. That’s just a ‘nice to have’ for me.

J.S: It’s awareness only?

J.A: Yes, but what use is awareness if you’re not changing anything? Being told it’s hot out here in the desert isn’t useful unless you can point someone to some water. You have to do something useful. Otherwise you’re abdicating your responsibility, especially if you’re taking advantage of the brownie points you get when you position yourself as a contributor to these social issues.

J.S: So what is it that organisations have to do? What is the necessary action right now for organisations to stand up and say look, we want to do something meaningful? What do you see that as being?

J.A: Be more explicit about what they stand for. So, most of these brands and organisations are global. And the rules about inclusion are different globally. What passes for inclusion in Nigeria, Russia…even France and Spain aren’t the same as what passes for inclusion in the UK. Companies have to say what they stand for explicitly. That means if you’re a company that embraces say, LGBT employees, and you want to create pathways for them to enter the workplace, then that has to be nuanced for an office in Saudi Arabia, or Qatar. But you can’t not adopt that position in Saudi Arabia or Qatar in order to work there. That’s the highest level of insincerity.

J.S: We’ve been talking a lot about voice. Whose voices do we need to hear as part of this narrative around equality? More importantly, whose voices do we have to introduce into the conversation - those that aren’t being heard - if we want people to take notice?

J.A: I have no idea how to answer that question to be honest. I mean, either this subject matters or it doesn’t. Either it’s a social justice issue or it’s a performance prerogative issue within our society, or it’s not. What matters is that the conversation is had with conviction. That it’s science led, not just full of anecdotes and politics. And we stop lying about the status quo. And it really all starts with the status quo. What is the situation now? We can talk about this glorious, rainbow coloured future forever and it just doesn’t make any difference. If you can establish for people, even straight, white older men who are in powerful positions, that they don’t feel as included as they’d like to, in a dimension that may not be as a protected class, but may still be highly significant to them, then you can help them realise that if they are this powerful and they don’t feel included, there might be other people who aren’t anywhere near as powerful who are feeling significantly worse.

J.S: Empathy is hard thing to elicit though…

J.A: It’s not about empathy. it’s very practical. It’s a very pragmatic understanding. So there are lots of types of empathy. There’s an intellectual empathy which means that I get that, when someone is burning, they are in pain. There’s a different type of emotional literacy, and not intellectual emotional literacy, where you don’t feel their pain, but you recognise it; the psychic image of this scorches you as this person literally burns. So, that’s what we’re looking for.

J.S: Is there a process to get leaders to open themselves up like that?

J.A: It’s hard to say there’s a process for getting them to that level of understanding, but there is a level of deep discussion. We use a lot of interactive tools to explore the status quo, to explore how traditions within organisations imperil inclusion. Insurance for example; there are still brokerage rooms where you can’t get in without a tie. There’s still a culture within some insurance firms where at 3pm or 4pm, you go to the pub, after starting ridiculously early. But the expectation is that you drink heavily. And there’s the question of who this cultural tradition excludes. And people always say, well what about Muslims? Well of course, but those whose religion might prohibit them from drinking alcohol are just one group of many. Families with children, those at a junior level who have to commute from zones 7 or 8. So you’ve got a wide range of people from all backgrounds who could feel excluded in this sort of environment. I had a young man who cried as he told me how he was given a gym pass for his well-being. And the gym was right next to the main office because many of the partners have weekday lodging in that area. But if he used that gym after work, then he wouldn’t get home until 11pm because of his commute.

J.S: So how do we get those types of stories out into the open? Because people aren’t going to be confident, or even comfortable enough to share them?

J.A: That’s part of what we consider our job in workplace design. We have something called an organisational diagnostic which we use in lots of different facets where we go in and talk to a bunch of people. And because I’m a psychologist and not a consultant I am bound by privacy and confidentiality. So people feel comfortable sharing their experiences and we can collate these stories and pass them on with some power behind them. We can then use those anecdotes and some quantitative data to create a picture of an organisation in whatever dimension we’re examining; whether its inclusion, or teaming, or collaboration.

J.S: And leaders buy that? The anecdotal evidence? They don’t hide behind not seeing and hearing it for themselves?

J.A: Well it’s not one story. For example, we can ask a sample of employees how long they are planning to stay at an organisation? And that’s not something that’s asked in most engagement surveys. And from that question we can paint a picture about that culture. And it might say that if you’ve been at this company for 10 years, and you’ve come through the company, then you plan on staying for 20 years. But If you’re a direct entry graduate and you’ve just arrived, or you’ve been there less than two years, then you plan on staying less than 2 years. That picture is anecdote driven because it’s a sequence of anecdotes collated as qualitative data, but that picture we’ve painted is terrifying. Because who are the people you’re hiring right now, or over the last 2 years? They are all people who can handle the future world of work. They’re all people who are savvy with data, analytics, digital. All the people who are flexible enough to take the business in the direction it needs to move in. And they’re all the people who are saying “we don’t want to stay here.”

J.S: But these are also the people who, culturally, have been raised in more diverse environments. More culturally mixed schools for example. They have a different expectation as to what’s acceptable and a different perspective on what D&I means.

J.A: Of course. And they can go somewhere where they don’t have stupid dress codes. Where you don’t have to pointlessly wear a suit if you’re not seeing clients. They can go somewhere where they don’t have ridiculous utilisation cultures. You just have to get the work done. That goes broader than any given industry or any specific background.

J.S: Thinking more about language. I personally still get frustrated when I see people dumbing down conversations about inequality to get people to listen. So, if we’ve got terms like systemic racism, white privilege and white fragility being used in certain conversations, terms that are going to make those in a position of inherent privilege uncomfortable, is it necessary to have an uncomfortable conversation, to make that conversation stick?

J.A: It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. It’s only uncomfortable because people reject it. So, climate change conversations are controversial. But they are only controversial because people reject the idea for a worse idea, the idea it doesn’t exist. They reject a 98% position for a 2% position because it fits their world view. Diversity is identical. There isn’t an awful lot of social scientific differentiation on this.

J.S: So how should we frame the conversation in order to get leaders to listen? Not only listen, but to start leading by example and instigating change?

J.A: It’s not really about D&I categories and quotas. It’s about winning. The question is do you want to win? Diverse thinking is a risk remediator. But it’s not just a question of it being diverse. It’s a question of the diversity being heard. So, it’s no good putting a woman in a room but sustaining an environment where if she speaks up too much, she’s deemed to have over spoken. It’s no good putting a woman in a room where if she does say “yeah, I heard that but what I think is this” she’s deemed to be disrespectful.

I could easily hire 5 people who agree with me but then what’s the point? In that instance my blind spots are their blind spots. And that includes hiring people that ‘fit’. We still use that terminology. And they might be Moroccan, or Algerian French, they might be something else, but the actual essence of the person that ‘fits’ is still from the same 16 schools in France. The same 8 Russell Group universities in this country. The same 2 universities in China. It’s those same people. So even when visual diversity is improving, you suddenly realise that in terms of socio-economic status the gap is still massive.

J.S: Going back to your point on how we educate the next generation. My sister is 22, studying an MSc. If I want to give her confidence about her future in the workplace she’s going to enter, what do I say to her? What advice can I give her?

J.A: I would always encourage individuals to read Claude Steele’s work. Whistling Vivaldi is his famous book and it’s about stereotype threat. It’s not about how you are stereotyped necessarily, but it’s how every person with difference knows what that difference means. So, if you’re in a wheelchair, every person in a wheelchair knows that people will conflate your physical disability or impairment with a mental one. They will talk to you like you’re stupid because you’re in a wheelchair. They assume you are a non-contributor. Everyone knows that if you are a black teenager in school, what that means for you is a propensity towards violence, you’re a sexual predator, you have less intelligence or lower aspirations. Because we know these things we fall into a trap of letting them influence our own understanding of our own identity. Another example would be gay kids in school choosing not to go into teaching, because they know gay men are predators, so they choose to believe that they shouldn’t be around children.

The thing to do is to address this in ourselves and to say “yeah I know intellectually that this is what people think, but I know who I am”. And it’s not a question of NLP, or saying I’m black and I’m proud. It’s about thinking more carefully and in a more nuanced way about who you are as an individual, how you behave. Then it’s about catching yourself in those moments when you think a decision you’re making might be based on what you fear other people see in you.

J.S: That’s great advice.  

J.A: It is. But its only part of the picture. Because you have to look at the mental gymnastics that you’re asking people to do in that scenario. Whether they be 1st or 2nd year in a professional services firm, working on a building site, or in school. What we’re asking them to do is this quite complex, energy expensive, cognitive loading, mental vigilance activity. And next to them are a group that never have to consider this. They never consider it because when they put their hand up they know that if they’re wrong it says nothing about them.

I can’t speak for you but personally, whenever there’s something bad and it’s on the news, I crane my head around to look at the TV thinking “please don’t be a black person”. Because everybody knows that when a black person does something wrong, all black people have done something wrong. And when a white person does something wrong, nobody thinks “oh my God what is wrong with white people? What is wrong all white families?”

When a white person does something wrong, nobody thinks “oh my God what is wrong with white people? What is wrong all white families?”
— John Amaechi OBE

J.S: That’s an interesting idea for me personally. I think one of the things I’ve confronted more directly in the last 6 months is my upbringing, which I’d consider to be quite privileged as someone from a minority background. So when something like that happens [or even when we start talking about workplace experience of under-represented groups], I don’t necessarily feel that reaction or that empathy with, well I guess the ‘cause’. There’s a distance between my own experience and that of the wider group. So clearly this idea isn’t just about colour? Its comes back to that idea of self-identification.

J.A: For sure. But it doesn’t change the fact that for you, all you need to do is take your jacket off and take you glasses off and you’re a different animal. So, I know that when I wear what I want to wear — my grey sweats from back in the day, slightly ripped — and I know that when I put on my hoodie, that I become a super predator.

J.S: And again, I think my experiences of that type of stereotyping are probably the opposite. So last year we were in North Carolina, very much a Republican heartland. And we visited this gas station and I could see the woman at the kiosk keeping an eye on me, I mean she looked scared. But the change in her attitude toward me when she heard a British accent was incredible. It just completely disarmed her.

J.A: Of course. Because you just went from potential predator to Idris Elba.

J.S: My last question is around what we need to do collectively to change the narrative and the approach to D&I in the workplace? Why isn’t it at the top of every CEO’s agenda and why aren’t some of the most persuasive principles of change, such as those proposed by Iris Bohnet in her book What Works, more widely acknowledged?  

Straight white men aren’t the enemy. They’re the power. No change comes unaccompanied by power.
— John Amaechi OBE

J.A: Because it’s still a ‘nice to have’. It’s an explicit ‘nice to have’. But I would also say, and the thing that people tend not to address, is that inclusion is a threat to some people. It’s often painted as some wonderful, in vogue unicorn world. And we’ve made it out that straight white men are the enemy. They’re not the enemy, they are the power. And sometime power isn’t the enemy, power is the friend. And any change, whether it’s being led by Martin Luther King, or the suffragettes, or by whoever else. No change has come unaccompanied by power. So white privilege is a tremendous power that is not necessarily evil but can, left unfettered, do terrible things.

The other problem is that people know this stuff, but why would you want to be told that essentially there’s a box that stands under every white person? No matter how poor or rich, there’s a box that they stand upon everyday when they come to every interaction with authority. Now that box still doesn’t get them above the parapet when they’re poor, but when you’re standing on it, and the black person or the women next to you isn’t, it’s still a relative position of power and advantage. And nobody wants to be told that some part of their achievement isn’t down to them.

J.S: So how do we get leaders to act differently? To act against their own self-interests?

J.A: People are going to miss their targets for gender, numbers for gender at least. And this is not about inclusion, but at least it’s a diversity stat. There would be consequences for any other operational failure at this level. There isn’t a consequence for this operational failure. It doesn’t matter, this is a ‘nice to have’ and this is why it doesn’t change.

 

 

John is a respected organisational psychologist, best-selling New York Times author and CEO of Amaechi Performance Systems, a consultancy that partners with organisations to help leaders move from being transactional to transformational. He focuses on improving performance, solving intractable people problems and creates thriving workplaces. Prior to founding his own firm, John spent several years as a professional athlete, becoming the first Brit to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

This is the fourth in our series of blogs and feature articles exploring how we provide better answers to D&I in the workplace. It’s part of our broader objective to bring together change leaders like John and a wider network of academics, in-house practitioners and technology providers, willing to work together and open to sharing progress.

If you share this vision we'd love to talk with you.