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Diversity and Inclusion: A South African Viewpoint

By Ian Conolly, Facilitator

Let me briefly introduce myself and set the scene. I am a white male who grew up in Zimbabwe. I am a Senior Client Engagement Leader here at Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute and I want to share a recent experience at Include, our diversity and inclusion course, in South Africa.

It was a sunny afternoon during the lunch break; I enjoy the client interaction during breaks because we get to see their culture. I arrived at the dining area to find all fifty attendees seated and was fascinated to see eight or nine tables of White people sitting together and one table of Black people sitting together. Yes, the irony of this whilst running an inclusion workshop is not lost on me.

In these environments something in me kicks in. It is a resistance to the status quo, a determination to set the example of behaviours our course inspires. So, I grabbed my lunch and walked to the table of people that didn’t look like me, with a warm smile, and asked if I could join them. They smiled back, and responded, “Of course! Please do.” Little did I know the simple decision to sit with those that looked different from me would lead to a vulnerable and eye-opening discussion regarding race that afternoon.

Is prioritizing diversity and inclusion part of your business strategy? There is substantial evidence on the benefits of diversity and inclusion, including increased team and financial performance. Forbes states that companies with 3 or more women on their board yield a better return on equity. Harvard Business Review revealed a 2009 analysis of 506 companies that found firms with more racial or gender diversity had more sales revenue, more customers, and greater profits.

Our diversity and inclusion survey provides a list questions to use with your team as a starting point for understanding where your organisation is at:

  • Does this organisation actively seek to hire candidates of diverse backgrounds?
  • Do members of this organisation actively seek to develop relationships with others, regardless of differences?
  • Does this organisation treat people of all backgrounds fairly?
  • Is diversity and inclusion is a priority in this organisation?

This is written from Cape Town, the origin of much oppression and conflict in Southern Africa, including slave trade and colonisation. Change is happening here. There is hope. An example of hope for systemic racism are the Springboks, South Africa’s 2019 world cup winning rugby team. Historically it has been a team of white men playing a predominantly white sport. In their first world cup appearance in 1995 the team had only one player of colour. Twenty-four years later they won the world cup again only this time there were eleven players of colour, one of whom was and still is the team captain. Twenty-four years is arguably too long, but still remarkable history for South Africa with lessons for all.

It was and still is legislated that the team must contain a certain number of players of colour. The legislation was intentional in creating a more diverse team. Was that hard for white people to accept? Absolutely. Did it challenge mindsets? Absolutely. In hindsight was mandating the change the right thing? Sure, this is contextual, however evidence today is that it was.

With renewed hope, effort, and intention, together we can make a difference. Here are behaviours you can implement right now.

Seek to understand

In 2011 I was living in Zimbabwe, a country impacted by colonisation. I was one of the leaders of our family manufacturing business, employing about 250 people then. A relative of the foreman in our machining centre passed away; in an effort to care for this team member, I made a visit to his home. As I sat with him, a black Zimbabwe man, I noticed his young children staring at me, hesitant to approach. My friend said to me, “Sorry, we’ve never had a white person in our house before.” I was stunned. I was also saddened. I wished I had reached out sooner. Here was a black leader in our business who had worked for the company for nearly 30 years and none of us white owners had ever visited his home.

He had never felt free to invite me to his home. It has taken time for me to understand that I am perceived in a certain way simply because I am a white male in Africa. It differs from how I perceive myself. Over time I have come to accept it and not to feel threatened or judged by it. As a white male in post-colonial Africa there are immediate assumptions people will make about me before they know me.

In our places of work, accepting the perspectives people carry of us is important. Once we accept, we can then set out to understand those perspectives, and perhaps start to interact with one another in a way that shapes perspectives. We can interact with kids who have never had a person of a different race in their home, understand the context and start to break down the barriers to inclusion.

Close the Distance

What does it mean to “close the distance?” Distance is the emotional separation we put between ourselves. It is a feeling. It is painful to feel excluded, separated or set apart. In contrast, when I am heard and know my voice matters, I feel accepted, included, and valued. To close the distance is to behave in a way that enables the other to feel that the emotional separation is reduced and to approach me.

As a white male I may be perceived as powerful or wealthy simply because of history. That perception is likely to make people feel hesitant to approach me and initiate conversation. The initiative is mine to make, the distance is mine to close, the walls are mine to tear down.

Back to the machining centre foreman’s house, as I smiled and interacted playfully with his kids they began to come nearer and to feel comfortable around me. It took a few minutes of behaving in an approachable way for them to start to relax a bit. I showed an interest in them, asking them questions about school and teachers. I leaned forward, smiled, made eye contact and ensured my body posture was open. If I had sat on the chair, avoided eye contact, maintained a serious face, and ignored them, they would have maintained their distance.

What would your workplace be like if every single team member recognised that they carry assumptions, biases, and perceptions of different people, and yet still chose to close the distance? What would the impact of this be on your team’s ability to think, create, and perform together? It is the work of leaders to close the distance.

Start with connection

The remarkable power of belonging in workplaces is something Harvard Business Review has put numbers to in an article on belonging, saying, “high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M.”

How do leaders create a sense of belonging? If distance is emotional separation, belonging is emotional connection. Belonging is the feeling of emotional connection which we create primarily by caring for people. Caring looks like empathy, listening, including, asking, physically closing the distance and other actions that enable people to feel connected.

It is not race or gender that result in connection. It is behaviour. Behaviours create connection and connection fuels belonging. When team members connect and belong, they will align and perform in remarkable ways.

Not many people demonstrate these behaviours more than Nelson Mandela did. In 1990 he was released from prison after 27 years and in 1994 he was elected as president of the South Africa. A year later the Springboks participated in their first rugby world cup. Mandela had every right to avoid the team and the tournament. Instead he sought to understand, closed the distance and fuelled connection for all. He spent time with the team. He inspired them, supported for them and wore their jersey. They went on to win the tournament.

Mandela said this. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Understand, Close the Distance, Connect. It comes naturally to the human heart.

We are offering free resources, including conversation guides to use with your team.

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