Towards true diversity

18 days ago   •   10 min read

By Frank Dillon
Photo by Jason Goodman / Unsplash

Ade McCormack argues that we need cognitive diversity in the workplace rather than just tokenism if organisations are to thrive

Are you sitting comfortably? Imagine a world where giraffes are known for their ability to create start-ups. They love the buzz, and their height allows them to spot trends before others. Deep down they fantasise about one day becoming a unicorn. However, their entrepreneurial energy becomes a little counterproductive as the organisation starts to mature. Elephants on the other hand are great at process thanks to their great memories, often making excellent accountants.

It makes sense that at some point a giraffe would want to have an elephant join the leadership team. So its day one for the elephant. She turns up at the giraffe’s plush offices. However the elephant cannot enter the building. It’s far too narrow. The giraffe, being so smart, recognised the issue and suggested that the elephant lose some weight in order to fit in. So, the elephant immediately joined an aerobics class (this is quite an old story) that was taking place in the grounds of the office.

The giraffe was pleased that the elephant was endeavouring to fit in but was horrified when it looked out of the window and saw the elephant uprooting some trees. These trees were a major feature of the staff (primarily giraffes) onsite catering facility.

The giraffe stormed out to scold the new employee. The elephant was angered by the tone of the giraffe. It did not end well for the giraffe and the elephant found itself back on the job market.

Variants of this story are a staple when teeing up the topic of DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) to three-year-olds.

And it might appeal to adults too if the story was constrained to one species. DEI is more nuanced than perhaps we are prepared to accept and thus requires more thought (and action) than we are prepared to give.

That workforce diversity needs to be enforced through regulation is an indicator that many business leaders don’t quite understand value creation. In this post, I will propose that disruption is coming to the rescue, but there is a price to pay. The impact of that payment will depend entirely on the extent to which you embrace your humanity. Read on.


Firstly, here are some broad definitions, given the context of organisational culture:

·       Diversity – The practice or quality of including or involving people who do not fit the profile of the majority. Thus, diversity includes, but is not limited to, gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental ability.

·       Equity – The practice of being fair and impartial.

·       Inclusion – The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized.

·       Talent – People who can add value in a manner that cannot be replicated by an algorithm or a robot.

·       Cognition – The ability to sense, predict, decide and act in a manner that maximises the chances of living long enough to reproduce, particularly under inhospitable circumstances.

Social ineptness is not a superpower

The human tendency to stereotype served us well on the savanna. Conclusions had to be jumped to immediately or it might be ‘game over’. Back then stereotyping was a time-sensitive and energy conserving feature. In a less deadly world, where we can afford to spend a bit more time and energy on assessing the stranger, stereotyping is essentially social ineptness. The equivalent of taking a dump in the middle of the room at a networking event because your pre-frontal cortex has missed the last few (thousand) software updates.

So, you want to be a placeholder?

Then there is the organisational problem. The industrial era factory model, which has been in place for around three centuries, does not actually value humans. Keep in mind that when I say factory, I mean anything that has a conveyor belt, whether physical (an automotive factory) or virtual (an investment bank). The conveyor belt can be transporting car parts or data. Both are factories. Both are process and efficiency oriented. Both view risk as something to be carefully managed, ideally to the point of elimination.

Just to highlight the human point. The factory needs to run efficiently. Tech does that job well. But where the tech isn’t sufficiently mature, the business owners have had to reluctantly use people. But the people are not being employed as humans, but as process cogs. ‘Technology placeholders’ waiting to be swapped out once tech becomes available. The trouble with humans is they have aspirations and are not always predictable. But if we must use them then let’s keep the risk to a minimum.

It is worth noting that the industrial era model has in many ways genetically mutilated humanity.

Being a cog in the machine doing mindless process work (think painting sex toys or staring at spreadsheets) is not in our nature.

You don’t fit in

But how do employers keep the efficiency risk to a minimum? Well, the trick is to employ people who are compliant and low maintenance.  Given the adversarial nature of industrial era work (owners versus workers), the workers do not have to be liked or trusted, but they do need to be compliant and agreeable.

As we have transitioned from products to services, people have moved closer to the front of the factory, ie engaging with the market. They are still required to do process work, but the bosses need them to convey a certain set of behaviours that are supportive of the organisation’s branding. Thus, talent acquisition has become a little more nuanced. Yes, cogs are now needed for the front of the machine, but they need to display certain attributes. So, the tendency was to pick employees in the image of the founder. It was almost as if service companies were a means to enable lonely entrepreneurs to pay for friends with minimal embarrassment.

Your ability to deliver counted for little if your prospective boss didn’t like you or you didn’t fit the brand mould.

If you weren’t on for squandering your Friday night getting ‘tanked up’ and stroking the boss, then you were not considered a team player.

Don’t take it personally

This was never about the person and their individuality, but about brand management and efficiency. Industrial Darwinism ensured that the primary, secondary and tertiary education systems organised themselves to meet the needs of the primary employers. Thus, as we speak, certain schools and universities are nurturing embryonic Goldman Sachs and Unilever employees.

Think, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ without the pushy parent or assassination tendency.

So, we have a machine that turns out the cogs, just as the major employers like them.

If you don’t fit, ie you are not that into blind obedience or brown-nosing, or you might require extra HR attention, then you were for all intents and purposes a faulty cog.  Plus the industrial era model took a rather dim view of those who might require special attention in respect of, for example, their religious, reproductive or disability needs. The employer-employee power axis tilted strongly towards the employer. So like it or lump it.

Peak cog

So it was too bad if you were mismatched with the industrial era factory model. Or was it?

In any case, the good news is that this ‘human as factory cog’ model is dying. It cannot struggle with the uncertainty that comes with the increasing disruption we are seeing in the world today.

The new model for business is one where innovation trumps efficiency. Innovation requires humans as algos and robots aren’t up to it yet. But it requires a particular type of human. One that is less compliant cyborg and more cognitive athlete. In fact, today organisations need humans to be human in order to unshackle their curiosity, courage and thus innovation-fuelled creativity. In an increasingly volatile world, innovation is both the antidote to uncertainty and the scent that attracts the most rewarding clients.

All change

If your key attributes are a smart outfit and an obsequious manner, then you will likely become a protected species in the coming years because post-industrial organisations will have little use for you.

This new reality is a problem for old school employers and employees. The employers do not like change as it threatens to upset the factory and thus cashflow. The employees do not like change for similar reasons. But this new model requires workers to wake up and activate their brain, and that is not to everyone’s taste.

So what does this mean for workers going forward?

If you can’t outperform technology, you are irrelevant.

You are unlikely to beat tech at chess or Go, but your ability to draw insights from small datasets (think emotional intelligence), creating and thinking in constructs gives you an advantage in the workplace.

Beyond the cog spec

But does this have any bearing on diversity? Traditionally people have been recruited to do a specific job and that job is usually defined in a job specification (ie. a cog specification). There are certain buzzwords on that spec and the role of the recruiter is to find resumes that include those buzzwords. Industrial era recruitment is thus a form of Bingo. For reasons mentioned, the recruiter will also look at academic qualifications and experience. This is where it can put some minorities at a disadvantage.

These requisite past experiences and education thus tune the talent pipeline for organisational homogeneity.

Great for the factory, but disastrous for organisations looking to thrive in an unknowable future. Such organisations need cognitive diversity. Different ways of seeing the world leads to more innovative outcomes. The market increasingly doesn’t value experience. It values value.

Your organisation might well win awards for the diversity of the leadership team. But if they all went to similar schools and have had a similar career path then that is window dressing diversity or worse still ‘woke washing’, where the illusion of diversity is created to boost profits.

It’s not a crime to go to a given school or have a particular career path. Every experience has some value. But the value capital of an organisation is somewhat limited if everyone is essentially a clone / mini-me version of the CEO.

New sources of value

Our humanity is key to organisations going forward. I believe we are saying goodbye to the professional caricature of slickly dressed, ever present and always upbeat. Being human means having experiences that recruiters would typically not recommend you share on LinkedIn.

It means caring about your family more than the organisation. It means not leaving your personality in the carpark each day.

I believe that your unique life experiences, vulnerabilities, struggles, upbringing, hobbies, personality and worldview will increasingly be perceived as sources of value. The industrial era wasn’t interested in these. Humanity is not an attractive trait in a cog. It is your unique combination of the above along with your value creating capabilities and that will make you employable in this increasingly chaotic world. It is the diverse combination of people (un)like you that will make organisations attractive and thus valuable.

Not so fast

Ironically, as robots and algos make their way into the building, the need for people has never been more acute. Again, not corporate compliant process cogs, but cognitive athletes whose capabilities extend beyond those of tech in respect of creating value.

The power axis is starting to tilt away from the employer and towards the talent.

Thus whether you are a majority or minority, your ticket to economic certainty will be defined by this new definition of talent. One shouldn’t expect to turn up to the dojo and insist on being given a blackbelt. There is a path to be taken. But by the same token do not turn up with your blackbelt to a gun fight. That requires following a path that involves firearms training.

In the post-industrial age, skills are disposable, and learning is thus a daily habit.

Organisational diversity

So diversity is an imperative for organisations looking to stay in play post-Covid. But not the diversity as defined by regulations and often expressed in tokenism, but cognitive diversity. By cognitive diversity, I am not solely focusing on neural diversity, but on the wider idea that people who think differently, for reasons mentioned, are critical to organisation success.

Our education system needs to be reset to reflect this new reality. Churning out compliant cogs, whilst dehumanising and discriminatory, would be okay from an organisation perspective if it was clear what the cogs were needed for and there were a steady flow of people willing to do dehumanising work.

But we are entering a post-skills world now, so employing people for their skills will be of limited value as increasing market disruption will likely make those skills redundant sooner rather than later.

Better to hire for cognitive diversity and skill people up as required.

Another approach would be to adopt a gig economy model where organisations hire and dispatch as the needs of the organisation change.

In my view, smart organisations will do what they can to acquire the most adaptable and creative people and should endeavour to retain them for as long as possible. Think premier league team sports. The war for talent is about to become very acute.

Careers are so last year

Certain roles, such as surgeon or barrister, require predictability in their training and career paths.

But even these are being threatened by tech. We are likely to see less doctors and lawyers and more medical and legal engineers.

Most significantly there will be fewer people needed in what today are considered aspirational roles.

I admire how some parents, who themselves faced discrimination, are pushing their children into high-status, well-paid roles. But they are in fact setting them up for social and economic disappointment as the associated career paths crumble. Better to help them nurture their creative potential. That will better ensure their economic future.

So, what next?

We all have bills to pay, so job number one is to find and retain a job. Forget your passion, follow the money. As you develop your capability, the passion will emerge. I mention capability and not skills. Skills are important as they get the job done. But as mentioned, skills are transient. By capabilities I am referring to the ability to learn quickly, to be adaptable and to think of yourself as a one-person enterprise, because as the gig economy becomes more prevalent that is what you will be.

You need to work hard on your personal brand (the sizzle) and your ability to deliver (the steak).

And you need to do it daily. There is no clear path. And if you aren’t struggling, you aren’t learning. If your boss is giving you a hard time, keep in mind there is an outside chance she is doing so because she cares.

There is too much untapped potential lying economically idle simply because of the institutional bias of the factory model. Thankfully this model has had its day. Society cannot afford to exclude capable people from the workplace. And society itself must signal that the game has changed so that we can all take steps to building a better future for all.

Ade McCormack is a writer and global advisor on building organisations optinised for an unknowable future.

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