Last time, I began delineating the need for and role of diversity diversity in the process of organisational development. Given that none of us can be entirely free of presupposition, the task of cultivating a bias-free organisation may seem like an impossible one. However, without resorting to fairy tale idealism, I think there are some genuinely effective measures to adopt.
Biases are like cognitive shortcuts, enabling us to make rapid decisions spontaneously or to follow algorithms without thinking painstakingly about every step. Since we exist in a sea of infinite sensory complexity that would overwhelm and paralyse us if we perceived all of it at once, this probably has some evolutionary value.
From a Gestalt perspective, both our shared and idiosyncratic biases enable us to see some discernible and comprehensible figures in the infinite ground from which they emerge. However, these biases can also be insidiously laced with irrational emotion. As a Gestalt practitioner, I’m interested in introducing an element of play into the assumed boundaries demarcating figure from ground, and that inevitably involves suspending or interrupting our biases.
In this project, diversity can be a major asset. Different subjective perspectives borne of various socio-economic, gender and ethnic backgrounds can shed intriguing new light on how those demarcations are viewed and experienced, calling them into question in the process.
Nevertheless, there is a big problem: to embrace diversity – which is something all organisations committed to productive organisational development must do – you can’t depend on diversity training programmes to surmount those deeply sedimented biases. Recent studies by Harvard Kennedy School academic Frank Dobbin and others have amply demonstrated that most diversity training programmes, despite their popularity amongst many big corporations (and despite their eye-watering costs), make little difference in changing attitudes, let alone behaviour.
This isn’t a counsel of despair, however. The secret resides in designing organisations that make it easier for our inevitably biased minds to make fair and rational decisions. Next time, I’ll elaborate on how to do this.