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BOOK REVIEW: Conquering unconscious prejudices

Oct 12 2017 09:20
Ian Mann

A Journey of Diversity and Inclusion in South Africa: Guidelines for Leading Inclusively, by Nene Molefi

THE author, Nene Molefi, has spent most of her professional life involved in transformation of the workplace. These activities range from working in a huge organisation where she held a transformation portfolio, to the Department of Labour where she was involved in crafting legislation that would enable transformation.

She has consulted to organisations from the Department of Justice where she worked with judges, to large for-profit companies.

When Tito Mboweni was appointed minister of the Department of Labour by President Mandela, it was his task to create the legislative basis that would transform the labour market. Electing a government democratically is not the solution to the fulfilment of the dream of an equal and just society. The codified discrimination and injustice of the apartheid system would have to be abolished, and a very different framework put in its place.

Affirmative action was not intended to overlook merit, but rather to equalise the recognition of merit and ensure equal opportunities to perform.

Diversity is not merely a euphemism for racial difference. There are many layers to diversity and any of these can heighten or alter the way one can be discriminated against. Discrimination adversely affects the way one experiences the world of work.

Nene makes much use of her own experiences as a woman, black, highly educated and without many of the connections that her white colleagues enjoyed.

Consider the first black secretary in a company: no matter her competence, she lacks connections that facilitate the execution of her tasks that a cohort of white secretaries enjoy. It is highly likely that the black secretary’s performance will be rated lower.

Nene cites the example of a black and white engineer, both of whom started at the same time, but whose careers differed markedly. On investigation it was found that the white engineer had been mentored, been given exposure to more projects, had attended seminars, and had been guided.

When one engineer is given an opportunity to perform that another is not, it is nothing short of unfair. Discrimination can be covert and often unintended. It is possible that the manager simply gravitated unthinkingly to one engineer rather than the other, and then offered opportunities that made the that engineer more “worthy” of even more opportunities.

Many of our prejudices are unconscious. Neuro-imaging research shows that from as young as six, attitudes and impressions are already formed. After these mental railway tracks are laid, we filter experiences along these tracks. These soon become not just normal, but any alternative becomes almost unfathomable. And we bring these mental pathways to the workplace.

The transformation process has as a goal the re-examination of one’s pathways in order to find new truths. Managers and leaders play an enormous part in this process. So many who have been successful in their careers have been successful because a manager or leader did what all managers and leaders are supposed to do – get their people to be the best employees they can possibly be.

“One of the greatest lessons I learned during my early years working at the Red Cross Hospital and Kragbron Power Station was the power of leaders to be mentors and to create enabling environments,” Nene notes.

A vital ingredient in getting the most out of people in the workplace is creating an environment in which people feel they belong, and where they do not feel like an outsider tolerated for their difference.

This is true whether the difference is religion, sexual orientation, background, origin, language or race. Where people feel genuinely included and respected, and feel that their opinions are valued and matter, they can really contribute. This is surely the aim of all transformation, diversity or inclusion programmes.  

However, this is never achieved in a single workshop or even through a longer process. It is only achieved through a meaningful change in beliefs and values – a profound and sensitive process. “Values are like fingerprints you leave all over the place in your leadership and life journey,” Nene explains.

Everyone in the workplace would benefit from going through the thought-provoking, and often self-critical and self-awareness process relating to prejudices. Both those who have suffered discrimination and those who might have behaved poorly, are unlikely to come to any resolution without such a process. Irrespective of which side of the divide one is on, the unresolved issues will protrude in action or conversation.

This is not only a book that will heighten your awareness of your own shortcomings, but is also a very practical guide for individuals and companies to raise their game. It will assist you to help others enter a new system, and assist you to help them become included in ways they will value, not resent. It is common knowledge that exclusion and isolation impacts performance, but how to address this, requires understanding.

“Despite the fact that diversity includes a multitude of markers, race remains one of, if not the most, emotive aspect of diversity,” and no more so than in a context that was deeply traumatic for so many. Expecting people to “get over it” and “move on” is not only unrealistic, but also very demeaning and dismissive of the other’s pain.

Nene shares the outline of the ten-step process she uses in her work, which is itself educative and instructive, even if it is only applied to oneself.

The operative concept that runs through the book is respect. “I don’t have to agree with you, but I need to treat you as a human being.”

Failing to listen respectfully is to gloss over an opportunity to show the basic respect we all deserve and crave.

Readability:   Light -+--- Serious
Insights:        High +---- Low
Practical:        High +---- Low
  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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