Following a different beat

As Indian actress Aishwarya Rai sweeps cinema-goers off their feet in Bollywood movie Bride and Prejudice, HR professional-come-bhangra-dancer, Balvi Macleod, plans to take the corporate sector by storm with a workshop that combines her passions for diversity and traditional Punjabi dancing.

“Diversity is still very new on the agenda and although organisations increasingly recognise it, hardly anybody is actually celebrating it,” says Macleod, consultant on culture change and diversity to government organisations in London.

“I am passionate about encouraging organisations to celebrate diversity, to address the cultural awareness deficit, and to take diversity a stage further than merely meeting government agendas. Diversity needs to be linked into people’s lives if it is to make sense.”

Government employees may soon find themselves bearing bindis and bangles and swaying to the beat of the dhol drum to celebrate diversity. Macleod, whose background is in learning and development and management development as well as diversity, is currently in talks to run sessions for government employees, and has run diversity and team-building workshops for companies such as telecommunications firm Vodafone.

“People get fed up with being asked whether they have an equal opportunities agenda – it shouldn’t just be about ticking boxes, but about winning hearts and minds, having some fun and celebrating the successes of the multicultural society we live in,” she says.

“The workshops are about doing something new and innovative, using the music to take people out of their comfort zone in a comfortable way, and opening up their perceptions to other cultures.”

Macleod believes her workshops are an easy, fun way for predominantly white-staffed organisations branching out globally to introduce employees to cultures they are not familiar with and to enhance productivity, particularly among black and ethnic minority staff.

“People will work more effectively if they see there is a fun element to coming into work, if they don’t feel their ideas will be just thrown out or that the colour of their skin will show up more if they talk about their culture.”

As a Punjabi Sikh married to a Scotsman for 19 years, and who worked for 15 years in the predominantly white town of Newbury, Macleod is no stranger to straddling different cultures. But she points out that for many British people, there is very little awareness of other cultures.

“I am proud of my art and culture. I have henna on my hands as we speak, but I wouldn’t have felt able to wear it in my previous jobs in the private sector. We need to create more awareness and achieve more work-life balance so that people feel just as happy talking about Diwali – the Hindu festival of lights – as they do Christmas,” she says.

Macleod’s sessions typically combine traditional Punjabi bhangra dancing and Bollywood-style movements, including group routines and plenty of hip swinging, feet, shoulder and eye movements. Bhangra dancing is performed to the uplifting beat of the drum.

Macleod says: “I encourage people to feel the drum inside them, to get their spirit involved in the steps rather than be mechanical. The music beckons the body to move, which gets people involved easily and is therefore good for team-building.”

Macleod says that while bhangra dancing is “just about getting up there”, Bollywood dancing is more romantic and expressive, symbolising ideas or objects, such as the moon or flowers.

Global diversity strategist and programme director at Ashridge Business School, Tony Montes, has extensive experience of what organisations are and should be doing to embrace diversity. He points out that diversity should not just be about celebrating the differences.

“If we limit our understanding to just differences, people start to fear the word, but in reality it’s about differences and similarities, and being able to work productively with things that make us distinct, and things that we share,” he says.

Montes praises Macleod’s approach as one that offers awareness of a particular ethnic energy and one that uses the cultural richness of dance as a means of expression and to develop team skills – waking people up to talents and skills that could have lain undiscovered. But he warns employers to ensure that initiatives are not being put in place just for show or purely for altruistic reasons.

“Diversity work tends to start with initiatives, often with focus on single-issue areas such as race, gender, or ethnicity, and that’s why it is often easily confused as ‘repackaged equality’. This is limited and limiting,” he says.

Organisations need to make sure they are not purely initiative-driven – that the business, social and moral case for diversity informs strategic direction and their value proposition with people.

He believes that organisations commonly work with about 10 to 15 aspects of diversity. Whether it’s the visible manifestations of diversity, such as personality types, behaviours and preferences, organisations need to think and decide long-term. They need to be dynamic about which of these really matter to their business, the people that they keep, and the customers and public that they serve.

Montes says that if companies are truly serious about it, diversity could involve a seven to 15-year transformation process, involving a three-pronged approach:

 – Leadership awareness and commitment

– Identifying the business case

–  Examining HR practice and policies.

Approaches such as Macleod’s do have their role to play, but Montes urges organisations to ensure that HR and business processes are aligned and enable the transformation to happen at individual, group and team levels, and on a wider organisational basis.

Montes emphasises how important leadership development and commitment is to any diversity strategy. “Over the last three or four years, the link between leadership and diversity has become inextricable. You really cannot talk about effective leadership without talking about diversity and vice versa,” he says.

Although Macleod’s vision of persuading boards of directors to perform Bollywood dancing has yet to be realised, she obviously has the powers of persuasion to get people to take part.

“There is always an element of people not wanting to embarrass themselves or being stuffy about other cultures,” she says. “Getting people up to dance at Vodafone was quite a challenge, but I soon had people dancing and experimenting with bindis.”

Unusual HR initiatives

Unilever Ice Cream & Frozen Food set up Project Catalyst, which brings in artists to help tackle business issues

– Kwik Fit Financial Services appointed a minister of fun to keep employees happy and motivated in a successful bid to slash staff turnover

– Francesca Kimpton is a widely-consulted corporate clairvoyant, who is called in by companies ranging from a high-street bank to recruitment agencies, to psychically weed out potential troublemakers

– American Express, Pfizer, and the London Borough of Croydon are among a growing number of organisations using percussion workshops to drum up creativity and boost team skills

– Brazilian manufacturing company, Semco, provides hammocks for staff to take lunchtime snoozes to boost productivity and team motivation

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