Diversity, identity and brand

The disciplines demanded by a diversity programme make a better starting point for behavioural or cultural change than top-down brand communication

Brand thinking has mostly emphasised uniformity as a guiding principle for staff behaviour, organised around a set of declared brand values. The aim is to ensure that brand-supportive behaviour is embedded deep in the company, creating consistently good experiences for customers or clients. With this in mind staff are supposed to understand the organisation’s short and long term goals, which is fair enough, and they are supposed to take on the culture of the organisation on this journey by embracing those stated corporate values (which is more questionable on several counts).

The word used for this uniformity is “alignment”, a term vague enough to pass scrutiny without people having to think too hard about what it would actually mean, or how the causal chain would really work here, or about the real behavioural effects of speaking in this way.

Diversity and uniformity

With some irony “diversity” commonly features among the corporate value sets driving uniformity in the business.

Diversity in that corporate context is defined by historic prejudice. The principle goal of corporate diversity programmes has to be the elimination of the counter-productive attitudes that hold people back in their work and inhibit their ability to make a full contribution to the organisation.

These programmes tend to have a double aspect, encouraging minority groups to feel confident enough to claim at least a level playing field, and critically promoting awareness among colleagues of the invidious ways in which prejudice can influence their own behaviour. (The most egregious reflection of the problem is in persisting pay differentials, which must reflect deeper attitudinal problems than simple pay scales.)

I’m putting it this way because it emphasises the fact that such programmes are not an act of kindness. It’s true that they may be driven in part by a general desire for the business to do the right thing, but there are practical business reasons too. It’s about attracting and retaining talent, as well as creating the conditions in which people can flourish at work.

None of this is particularly controversial. More interesting is how it forces attention on the intricacy of the relationship between who we think we are and what we bring to work.

Culture and society

Business moves in lockstep with the culture of the societies in which it operates. It’s unlikely ever to be first mover on an issue, but it can be an important reinforcer of attitudinal change: we’re more likely to have to confront our prejudices in the broader environment of our working lives than we are the confines of our home lives. Businesses may choose to intensify that confrontation, and need to do so if they want to harness the enhanced performance potential of good diversity practices. They also need to ensure that the confrontation with one’s own prejudices leads to a happy rather than resentful self-adjustment.

All of this requires sustained effort and sensitivity. It’s likely to entail establishing shared experience groups for minorities and awareness training to support diversity policies. It demands a background context in which people understand that the corporate commitment to diversity is serious and why it matters; it needs to become a routine, basic part of the life of the business.

That seriousness has to start with the way the business speaks, of itself and to itself. It needs to be consistently thoughtful, which is a good thing for a business to be anyway, but too often is far from the norm, not least because of managers’ propensity to use management-speak, with brand language very much a part of that jargon.

Speaking of difference

Diversity as a workplace programme demands respect for difference, based on a recognition that the varied experiences people bring to work can enrich a commercial culture. It’s really a precondition for innovation and fresh thinking (though it’s not in itself a sufficient condition). It’s about helping to ensure that people feel positive about coming to work, and fulfil their potential there. This much seems uncontroversial, though it’s easier said than achieved.

And because it’s easier said than achieved, what gets said matters absolutely.

Most corporate value sets, the things staff are supposed to align themselves with, are so bland and generic as to be practically meaningless. They generally represent a baseline for good behaviour in any context. Demanding that staff align themselves with these values is in most cases likely to result in little more than a shrug of acquiescence.

But damage will have been done, because if these ideas are presented crudely, as a given from above (as behavioural psychologist Leandro Herrero has written, staging workshops to discuss what a new brand and its values might mean simply shifts “top down” to a lower level), they will poison the water which people really need to be drinking; because the language of brand-led change is routine, because it’s dead and deadening, it can be ignored as easily as it can be acknowledged. It simply becomes a voice from another silo of the organisation, another tic of management fashion which will pass with time and can be more or less ignored while people get on with the more pressing business of their day jobs.

Personal v corporate identity

I’m not suggesting that brand identity is unimportant; on the contrary, because it’s important it needs more serious thought about where it fits in corporate life. How we understand our personal identities, and how we place them in a relationship with working culture are questions that are too important right now to be left to superficial communication projects, projects whose superficiality will undermine the serious work that needs to be done

I say “right now” because we are at a collision point between a resurgent and reactionary notion of narrow national identity, and an ever higher profile for the multiple struggles for equality and fairness, for racial equality, for what should be the irrelevance of sexual orientation and gender. Fear of that collision and its consequences may leave some wary of trying to lead opinion, but because we are more likely to be exposed to the diversity of humanity in the workplace employers have a responsibility to help move opinion along (such exposure is one of the most potent ways in which we may encounter the problems of our own prejudices).

Not least, this reactionary nationalism is rooted partly in a loss of self-esteem, while for most of us work remains a valuable source of self-esteem.

The interaction of these different currents create the unique potency of the workplace as an engine room for positive change.

Speak thoughtfully

These are difficult, important paths for any business to tread, so it’s critical that you tread carefully. It’s why if you’re going to attach your desired change to some kind of corporate value “thoughtfulness” should be out front, something which you have to demonstrate by your actions and language, rather than something you simply assert (this is true of all value claims).

Your language needs to be sensitive to the specific existing cultures of the organisation, so it’s impossible to be prescriptive about what it should look and sound like. Its thoughtfulness at a very minimum would show itself in a human tone, a tone that is straightforward and free from management jargon, where the use of “we” or “I” takes real responsibility for what is being said. It might seek to open a conversation rather than closing it down, which might be as simple as saying “we want to foster xxxx” rather than “xxxx is one of our values”.

Diversity as a workplace concept is about shaping the connections between people in the business, and our language is one of the primary ways in which we connect. A good diversity programme will help to create a better business, and with it an enhanced reputation. An insufficiently thoughtful approach to internal brand communication will on the contrary hinder an effective diversity programme. It would be better to start with the diversity action, then through the channels and awareness which you build nurture other positive behaviours through the organisation.

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