You know things are truly ridiculous when you hear that the rate of promotion of women to board level being equated to the pace of a snail travelling around the M25, or when you read that ethnic minority representation on Boards is stuck at the same level female directorships had reached almost 20 years ago.
Meritocracy is indeed a seductive concept, after all, we like to think that the decisions we are making are fair and unbiased, but if that really were the case then quite simply we wouldn’t be using snail-based metaphors to describe progress of minority groups.
Slowly, slowly, realisation is dawning that there are other factors at play which inhibit the progression of some groups, and that additional action is needed to provide at least half-decent opportunities for people who are under-represented at more senior levels.
Organisations are therefore increasingly turning to positive action initiatives as a way of taking some steps in helping minority employees build their path towards achieving more senior posts.
Historically, these positive action schemes have been somewhat unpopular, with suspicion not only arising from the non-beneficiary, majority population (usually white males) but also from the intended beneficiary groups as well.
However, research-based positive action initiatives that are effectively planned and executed have a huge impact on the progression of employees who are under-represented at more senior levels.
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Research conducted by our team of diversity and inclusion specialists has identified the key characteristics of successful positive action initiatives. In essence, these characteristics can be grouped into four areas that we need to get right in running positive action development programs:
C) Program Structure
A) Get the support right
Understand current attitudes towards positive action
One of the most common mistakes that we see with regard to positive action programs is the assumption that the beneficiaries of the scheme (still largely focused on ethnic minority employees and women), will automatically welcome the scheme, while non-beneficiaries (usually white men), will not take much notice of the scheme because it does not directly affect them.
These assumptions are both wrong and dangerous to the subsequent success rate of the positive action program. Research has consistently found that positive action programs need the support of both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries if they are going to be successful.
Attitudes towards and in support of, positive action programs are affected by a range of factors, and understanding these is a critical success factor. For example, perceived levels of discrimination in the workplace influence support: the higher these perceptions, the stronger the level of support.
Indeed, these perceptions have more influence over whether someone is going to support the program than whether they hold racist or sexist beliefs. Some background work is, therefore, advisable in raising awareness of levels of bias and discrimination evident within modern working environments.
Ownership from the top
Once an individual becomes personally invested in ensuring a positive outcome of something, they are more inclined to feel responsible for its success; this is known as psychological ownership.
Increasing the participation of majority employees at both senior and peer levels has been found to promote a sense of psychological ownership for the positive action, in turn helping to secure a successful outcome for the program.
For example, both white participants and male participants are more supportive of positive action programs if they are given the opportunity to provide comment on the policy that was being developed.
Mentoring and coaching activities are consistently linked with an increase in diversity at senior levels; this is also a great way of building psychological ownership among the senior team, as well as increasing the informal sponsorship of their mentees.
B) Get the communication right
Guard against attribution error
One of the most dangerous unintended consequences associated with positive action programs is a form of attribution error, whereby majority employees misattribute the subsequent success of minority colleagues to their participation in a positive action programs, rather than to their abilities.
This is especially evident in organisations where communications about the program are focused on numbers for example “only 5 percent of our senior teams are women” or “since the program started, representation of women among the senior teams has shot up to 20 percent.” Avoiding the trap of focusing on numbers and instead highlighting the benefits for the organisation is key in avoiding attribution error.
Avoid stereotype threat
The attribution errors made by colleagues are not the only potential unintended consequences of positive action programs. Those who believe they have benefited from positive action programs, can experience negative emotions and subsequently self-doubt about their ability.
For example, participants in one experiment who were led to believe they were selected for a project because they were from a minority group subsequently made lower ratings of their general ability as well as their performance on specific tasks.
Perhaps more worryingly still is the link between these beliefs and subsequent self-limiting behaviour, such as subsequently selecting less challenging tasks and making lower self-ratings of competence. This factor highlights the need for an emphasis on merit as part of the positive action program.
Reflect – does this need to be communicated as a positive action program?
A fundamental confusion still exists regarding positive action and positive discrimination. Even where understanding exists, there is an almost universal assumption among employees that a positive action program means that somewhere along the line something fundamentally unfair or un-meritocratic is about to take place.
One of the most successful formats of positive action programs is for them to be designed and communicated as mainstream developmental programs rather than positive action programs. All too frequently this option is ignored because of internal politics and the need to be seen as ‘doing something.’
C) Get the program structure right
Make the program merit-based
If we are to avoid stereotype threat and self-doubt among program beneficiaries as well as attribution errors by their majority counterparts, then participation in the positive action program must be merit-based. Moreover, one of the most common pieces of feedback from positive action participants is that having successfully passed a selection process in order to be eligible for the program gave them a significant sense of pride in being part of the program.
Involve majority employees
This article first appeared on Training Journal on October 12th, 2016.
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