A Breath of Fresh Air. Review of the Power of Difference by Simon Fanshawe OBE

Simon Fanshawe OBE was a co-founder of Stonewall and is now co-founder of consultancy Diversity By Design so knows more than most about diversity and inclusion. He has written a cracker of a book, full of insight and compassion, that should stir up the diversity and inclusion pond and provoke thought.  It may make some feel uncomfortable because it challenges current thinking but for others it will feel like a breath of fresh air.

There are a lot of books written on how to do diversity and inclusion. And there are classics, core texts often authored by people of great experience in the field which are usually well written as well as full of knowledge. We all have our favourites.  Mine include, Why Women Mean Business by Avivah Wittenberg Cox and Alison Maitland, The Value of Difference by Binna Kandola, and the very practical guide, Inclusive Leadership by Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick. A more recent addition is Rebecca Steele and Alison Maitland’s Indivisible. I have now added the Power of Difference to my list.

The book’s  strength is revealed in its subtitle – ‘where the complexities of diversity and inclusion meet practical solutions’ and its power and unique approach is Fanshawe’s ability to discuss the different debates, challenge some of the current trends, unearth the difficulties and discomfort of diversity and inclusion and suggest ways forward.

Human beings are still most comfortable surrounded by their own tribe – that may be family, village, or department at work. Over centuries, human beings have lived in small groups and developed their own ways of being, with common rituals and collective beliefs, a culture, rarely disrupted by outsiders. When resources are scarce any outsiders are a threat. It is only relatively recently that people have had to confront diversity in all its current forms. Movement of labour, our ability to travel, increased access to education, immigration and the emancipation of women and gay rights has resulted in huge social change.  Organisations are a part of wider society and reflect that change.

 Today in the UK we have a very diverse group of people living and working together and it is a challenge to shake off centuries old instincts and important to find enough common values to bring different identities together without threat. Fanshawe understands this even though these are my words not his. In addressing some of these challenges he does not shy away from some of the stickier issues that have surfaced – or in some cases been repressed – in the diversity world over recent years. The opposite in fact, he confronts them head on.

 Fanshawe introduces all the key themes in the first introductory chapter which gives you a flavour of the tone of the book: there are no ‘right’ ways, no mantras to recite, we are complex and flawed human beings and there will always be conflict among us, one wrong word or action doesn’t make us ‘bad’, we don’t always get on.  Read on!

Straight away the author provides examples of some topical conflicting views. Not everybody, whatever their colour or race subscribes to a BLM white privilege view of the world. In fact later in the book Fanshawe is critical of it himself. He argues that it doesn’t embrace the privilege of class – try telling a poor working class under educated white boy that he is privileged. He also says that the concept of privilege is static and therefore rules out possible change ‘It condemns any idea of solidarity between Black and White to the bin, in favour of unending division’.

In a similar vein he puts the extremely topical divisions over gender identity and sex on the table as it should be in every diversity seminar.  Not everyone believes that the concept of gender identity even exists let alone should be recognised as taking priority over biological sex. He notes that a number of corporates have embraced the idea of putting preferred pronouns at the bottom of their signatures with the best of motives – ‘to make people feel comfortable’. The problem is it doesn’t make everyone feel comfortable and employers need to recognise that. The whole rationale for pronouns is that your physical sex may not be actually your ‘real’ sex. We need pronouns to tell people who we really are. Many people do not ascribe to this belief or ideology and to make employees use pronouns is no more than coerced language.’

Sometimes in diversity one group’s interests are at the expense of another group’s. It is not a pretty mosaic.  It is crucial that we enable these tensions to surface and be debated even if we never agree on all of them. If we don’t, feelings go underground and resentment brews.  Fanshawe gives many practical pointers on how to manage in a way that allows individual expression and manages conflict well.

The author uses examples like the truth and reconciliation committee in South Africa and Northern Ireland where different views has resulted in loss of life which  show us that even in this extreme a way forward is possible. Forgiveness is not always possible but understanding is. In the same way in the less dramatic setting of a workplace we may disagree but it shouldn’t matter, we should listen and understand it.  Where it is the law of course it must be adhered to. But diversity in its broadest meaning is complex, it is managing difference types of people so they can all bring their best selves to work and be free to fulfil their potential and participate in the workplace.

Fanshawe frequently returns to the impact of identity politics on the diversity and inclusion industry and is well aware that there has been a growing tendency in this industry to have ‘right’ answers from which everyone must agree. ‘it is a peculiar feature of modern identity politics that the struggle for diversity is too often matched by a demand for rigid conformity.’ 

And what has happened he suggests is that  ‘the nobility of those causes has sometimes given rise to mantras that mask the complexity that needs to be understood to significantly improve those responses’. We are more than an identity and ‘If it is based entirely on rigid ideas of identity it produces little more than animosity and gridlock’. We need to have difficult discussions and we can live with  productive disagreement rather than agreement. The author also says that in many situations now disagreements are no longer about views but about the person… the offender of the prevailing view is ‘deligitimised’. Not agreeing with a prevailing view does not make someone a bad person.

The need for open and honest discussion brings us on to the need for psychological safety. In my own anecdotal survey of current topics that consultants are focusing on in diversity and inclusion, psychological safety came quite high up. Amy C Edmundson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard, describes psychological safety as being  ‘a climate in which raising a dissenting view is expected and welcomed. It’s all about creating an atmosphere in which you can speak out. Where making a mistake doesn’t lead to scorn or ridicule.’ This applies to diversity as much as it does to any other area of organisational life.

It is also very different from the concept of safe spaces which Fanshawe says is being dangerously misused. ‘Language that might offend is being confused with actions that actually do. Hurt feelings are equated with harm and demands with rights’ He says that diversity isn’t necessarily ‘safe’ but that safe spaces should offer safety for disagreement not safety from disagreement’.

He also is unimpressed with some organisation’s attempts at shutting down voices that may express a view not adhered to by the majority. If, Fanshawe writes, the response to a Twitter storm is to remove the offender this is stifling dissent and an alternative view. He is not advocating giving airtime to overt racism or sexist but says that ‘denying legitimate expression of different respectful views about social issues undermines trust rather than builds it’.

 As well as providing a timely critique of some of the ways in which the diversity and inclusion industry has gone off track, Fanshawe provides many examples and case studies on how to bring it back on the right path. At the end of each chapter is a box of the central points and many of these are practical tips like; reframing issues in terms of possibility rather than problems,  bringing together groups of people who have different values for a discussion, and how to design an interview to eliminate bias. There is so much more in this book than I have time or space for e.g. a critique of the use of acronyms for underrepresented groups and how unconscious bias training can cost millions but not change anything, how groupthink happens. Do go out and buy it. It is a classic.