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Legitimate (and not so Legitimate) Counter-Arguments

Here, we provide a brief overview of some of the more interesting arguments that caution against a single-minded pursuit of ethnic diversity end goals with a “take no prisoners” approach. We believe that companies that understand and appreciate some of the more thought-provoking counterarguments will make the best decisions.

Humans may have natural tendencies, hard-wired through the evolutionary process,and reinforced by history, culture, and social norms, to associate more closely with individuals and groups that are more like them. For a majority of senior leaders all over the world, their spouse or partner is likely to be from the same ethnic group as them, and a high proportion of their friends and acquaintances are also likely to correspond to the same ethnic group.

Downplaying the existence of this natural tension with the D&I agenda or creating excessive guilt about the natural human tendency to be more comfortable with people of your own ethnicity doesn’t serve the cause– it would be far better to be aware of and understand these natural tendencies as a stepping stone to better D&I outcomes.

One can also find interesting academic literature on homogenous versus heterogeneous groups and systems. Homogenous teams could likely build trust faster, communicate better, and act quicker than groups that are more heterogeneous. It isn’t too difficult to extrapolate this to less diverse and more diverse senior leadership teams. Viewing one as “all bad” and the other as “all good” may be too simplistic. There is good evidence that heterogeneous and diverse economic and social systems are more resilient for the long term, but that does not mean that more homogenous systems and cultures afford no advantages to those who are part of them.

Although many articles have been published by professional services firms and management journals linking more diverse senior management teams to superior financial outcomes and shareholder returns, academic-level research linking diversity to performance is still emerging. For example, are Microsoft and Google great companies because they have Indian-born CEOs and diverse boards or because they have the best algorithms and products in the world? Why are Chinese companies with predominantly Chinese and often all-male top management teams some of the best performing in the world? The reality is that these are complex topics, and acknowledging the complexity is a better approach than touting less robust analytical conclusions. Seeking conclusive, analytical “proof” of the superiority of more diverse and inclusive teams could be open to legitimate counter-arguments.

Moving on to the D&I agenda itself, we hear a lot about greater gender and ethnic representation in senior management, but we don’t hear the same sense of urgency and enthusiasm about representation at every level. The natural argument is that D&I champions have a disproportionate focus on “wanting a fair share of power” as opposed to “championing the cause of equal opportunity.” Where are the equivalent campaigns championing 50 percent gender representation among Uber drivers, or 20 percent ethnic minority representation among UK construction laborers? If not, why?

Another interesting argument is the danger of overemphasizing group identity at the expense of individual identity. The argument goes that a lot of the great social progress achieved by liberal democracies has been because of the emphasis on individual rights, accountabilities, and freedoms. Swinging the pendulum too much the other way and encouraging people to think as part of groups rather than as individuals could risk a form of us versus them tribalism that could slow the cause of individual thought and liberty. Those making these arguments do have several valid points on the dangers of doing this on a large scale, particularly on the ethnicity agenda, as incidents of racial hatred, ethnic cleansing, and incidents of genocide in society show us. Though we don’t believe that the argument has sufficient merit in terms of the danger attached to ethnicity initiatives in the senior leadership settings discussed in this paper, being aware of this danger in wider society is still well worth it, so that statements, strategies and initiatives that leaders endorse are well-calibrated to enhance and not detract from respect for every individual, whether they belong to a minority or majority group.

Similarly, another argument is that most of the ethnically diverse senior leadership appointments tend to be of people who are privileged, just as a majority of White leaders in senior leadership come from privileged backgrounds themselves. Is the D&I agenda just going to be about replacing one set of privileged elites with others? This falls in the “half-truth” camp. Leaders who come from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds, irrespective of their gender or ethnicity, are clearly advantaged compared to those who don’t come from such backgrounds, and this is not true just today, but has been for centuries, and will probably continue to some degree in modern society. This is not the same as saying that having a minority characteristic counts for nothing or very little. An ethnic minority individual (and often their families) are likely to have had to strive harder for the achievement of that advantage, or privilege. Of course, companies need to recruit people from across the socio-economic spectrum for long-lasting systemic changes, but that is not the same as saying that the focus needs to be on “non-privileged” ethnically diverse talent only.

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