I have worked in the field of diversity management for 11 years, and have been practicing as a coach for 5 years. Both are my passion, and I was excited when I saw the COMENSA call for articles on diversity. So from my personal experiences, here are some thoughts, observations and ponderings...
Diversity Management in a group setting
My background in diversity is facilitating diversity management workshops with staff in a large organisation. The groups consisted of people from different departments, different levels of the organisation, different ages, different race groups, different cultures, languages & religions, and a mix of men and women. Such rich diversity underpinned the success of creating change in people’s attitudes. People shared from their own life experiences, and this brought the learning home in a way that is undeniable to the listener. The workshops modelled a way of being that demonstrated mutual respect, and participants expressed their appreciation of being listened to and listening to others – it helped them to be more open to different perspectives.
We addressed diversity in all its aspects as mentioned above, and included sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ideologies… and so the list goes on (no sacred cows). We also readily addressed the ‘meaty’ issues of stereotypes and prejudice. Whilst we dealt with the harsh realities of what is currently happening in society and our workplace, we also highlighted the value that diversity can bring, particularly to innovation and productivity. For this to be brought forward though, our differences need to be well managed and truly valued – interpersonally and systemically in an organisation.
My role as facilitator, was to guide the discussions in the group, and walk alongside them as they grappled with the concept of diversity and its impact in their lives. Participants explored existing attitudes and behaviours that displayed prejudice in their lives, and reflected on where these came from (through sharing life stories and experiences). Some engaged easily in these discussions, while others were hesitant or uncomfortable. There was no absolute norm – no particular group that was easier with the experience. Some felt completely open to sharing and for some there was a perceived vulnerability and fear of exposure. It’s important to note that whether people shared openly or not does not dictate the value they find in the workshops. Different people benefited in different ways – whether they participated fully or not.
I remember in my early days of diversity facilitation becoming quite frustrated with participants when I believed they weren’t ‘getting it’, and the harder I pushed the more they withdrew or pushed back. I’ve since learnt to let go of the outcomes, and know that people will get what they get in their own time. Maybe the workshop or interaction opened a whole new world to them, or perhaps just opened a window – either way it’s enough for now. Who knows what realisations they may have in the future?
Opportunities for Diversity Coaching
Diversity coaching is of great value to individuals – whether they felt comfortable sharing in the workshop or not. It provides an opportunity to explore diversity issues more deeply. The workshop discussions provide a point of reference for coaching and coaching builds sustainability to the workshop experience.
For those that were hesitant to share in a group setting, the one-on-one environment would create a ‘safe’ space to continue the discussions from the workshop. A time for that individual to reflect on their own stereotypes, prejudices, behaviours and attitudes, and the impact this might have on those around them – without fear of being judged by the group. With a coach who is skilled at identifying barriers to managing diversity at their side, the shifts could be enormous.
It is important to meet the group or individual client where they are at in their diversity journey – walk alongside them, shoulder to shoulder. There is no point in telling them they must or mustn’t behave or think in a certain way. It is only when we help them to see the cost of their attitudes and actions for themselves (and I don’t mean only financial cost) that they may choose to make changes. This is sometimes challenging as it is quite easy for us (myself included) to sit in our prejudice, feeling very justified. When we believe something about a group, we tend to look for evidence to prove it – and if we look hard enough we’ll be sure to find it!
Being able to work one-on-one with someone, provides an opportunity to really deepen this work. As we (the client and I) come to understand the client’s thoughts and emotions behind their behaviours, we would interrogate how much of that prejudice is based on false beliefs and how much on truth. In a safe environment, the client can explore the impact of their behaviours at a deeper level, and from there decide if they want to make new choices.
In order to create change in an organisation or department, I would prefer to work with ‘influencers’ or change-makers (this is sometimes, but not always, people in management or leadership positions). As their behaviour and attitudes change, so they influence change in others by modelling a different way of being. As they become more conscious and sensitised, so they also notice barriers to diversity management in their surrounds and are able to address them and influence change.
In summary, I believe there is great value in addressing diversity management and barriers in a group setting, as you can’t replace the impact of people sharing their own stories. In addition though, one-on-one coaching work will deeply enhance the practical application of the learning from the group workshop. There is definitely a place for both group work and individual coaching in the field of diversity management.
The role of the facilitator and/or coach is to create an environment where clients are able to explore their diversity issues, deeply…
About the Author:
Mandy Antzoylatos is a coach, group facilitator and diversity practitioner. She has a background in Local Government, having worked in community development and employment equity as a diversity facilitator. In both departments she sat on the gender task team and led the team that developed the women empowerment strategy for female staff. She also worked in the private sector managing stakeholder engagement, focusing on climate change adaptation. She now consults privately offering coaching, training, diversity management and facilitation services. She can be contacted on tel: +27 (0)21 465 5820; mobile: +27 (0)84 200 9700 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org