Intelligent approach to diversity

From IQ to EQ to DQ – the civil service is using emotional intelligence to
build a truly diverse workforce.  Lucie
Carrington reports

If you want to celebrate diversity at work, you have to do more than tell
people what the laws are, insists Roy Howells, a training consultant at the
civil service training arm, the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.

Diversity is high on the Government’s agenda – it is at the heart of plans
to modernise public services, while the outgoing cabinet secretary, Richard
Wilson, has taken a personal interest in moves to create a more diverse civil
service. And yet, there appeared to Howells to be a gap in the whole process.
"No one seemed to be doing anything to change people’s attitudes," he
says.

His own awareness of diversity as an issue – be it race, gender or
disability – had developed as a result of personal experience and the stories
of people he had met through work. "It became clear to me that prejudice
against particular groups of people is largely a problem of misunderstanding
and fear – fear of ending up at the bottom of the pile," he added.

Howells decided that changing attitudes was about understanding the
histories and baggage that shaped the attitudes and understanding of others.
From there it was a small step to realising he could use many of the skills
associated with emotional intelligence to tackle diversity.

With these ideas in hand, Howells has developed and piloted a four-day
diversity programme for people in the public sector, which attempts to increase
people’s understanding of diversity by exploring their own experiences of
prejudice. It focuses on increasing participants’ self-awareness and awareness
of the prejudices they hold consciously or otherwise; increasing their
understanding of their environment – the culture in which they operate; and
increasing their understanding of the beliefs and attitudes of others.

The pilot programme, held last autumn, brought together 12 people from
organisations across the public sector, including housing, the police and the
Ministry of Defence.

Ideally, Howells wants the programme to attract a decent ethnic mix as well
as a balance of men and women. He managed the latter in his pilot course, but,
although two of the four facilitators were black, all the participants were
white.

The course kicked off with a look at the costs and pay-offs that come from
promoting diversity. Participants also spent time looking at the results of
psychometric tests they completed and discussed their own differences in terms
of their personalities.

On day two, participants looked at organisational cultures, how they
developed and how discrimination can become embedded in them. Howells and his
colleagues explored participants’ attitudes to racial difference. They were
asked to give their impressions of a video clip involving a short conversation
between a black and a white person. All the white participants interpreted the
black man’s attitude as hostile, while the two black facilitators saw it very
differently.

On day three, participants looked at

gender issues and their own experiences of discrimination. Men and women
were split into groups and asked to discuss what they liked and disliked about
being men and women.

"Women tend to work at a deeper level than men in these sorts of
discussions and some of the stuff that came out was both personal and
distressing," Howells says. As a result, when it came to presenting their
‘findings’, the women read out a poem. "Some of the men felt a bit
cheated. They felt they had opened up but in return only got some verse,"
he added.

It wasn’t until day four that the women were prepared to say more about
their gender discussion. This in itself was a learning point in terms of
people’s emotional intelligence with regard to diversity, Howells says.

But he admits that it was a risky approach to take. "When you expose
people’s emotions there is a concern that you pull people apart without being
able to put them back together," Howells says.

Ordu Obibuaku, one of the facilitators and a consultant with CMPS, agrees it
was a challenging experience. "Our reality is based on our own experiences
– but it’s not always the same as someone else’s reality. The aim was to get
people to have a deeper awareness of their own behaviour and how some of these
issues impacted on them," says Obibuaku.

Given the degree of discomfort involved, Obibuaku believes it was a success.
"To me, that discomfort was evidence that something was happening. I found
it a very powerful learning experience," he says.

Perceptions

The course finished with participants taking another look at diversity, what
they had learned and how they might now capitalise on the differences among
their own colleagues. It was also an opportunity to find out whether or not
people’s perceptions had shifted. "We found people had become more precise
about diversity. Instead of talking in general terms about the importance of
getting more out of people, they were able to look specifically at their
actions and their organisations," Howells says.

It’s early days yet but Howells hopes that over the next year more public
services that are struggling with diversity issues will come knocking at his
door for help. "I am convinced that the way diversity is handled will make
the difference between people going into factions or working together."

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