The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

diversity of courage

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Having a plural organisation is vital and is hard to do. Here are some thoughts about the role of story in shifting the diversity agenda on.

At the Lord Mayor’s conference for Charity Leaders recently, Alice Maynard (the departing Chair of Scope) was talking on a panel about diversity.

It’s not just diversity of identity we need, it’s diversity of courage.

Not only that. We need to be constantly vigilant because the slide into boxes ticked and lip service is very very quick. Alice quoted Nancy Kline’s ‘More Time to Think’: people welcome only the kind of difference they find it easy to accommodate. So the moment you welcome in difference or diversity, you authorise it, tidy it up into being a known quantity, and so very easily take away its power to challenge.

Sabine points out a similar sentiment in a recent column by Simon Kuper for the FT that touched on how difficult it is to break out of your own narrative of self and how that narrative holds on tight to the known quantity. In “Confessions of a white Oxbridge male”, Simon Kuper comments on the sameness of people in power and also that:

Our caste is always changing, just enough to make sure that everything stays the same. … Given our podium, many of us feel a responsibility to lament our own power. But it’s hard to feel this viscerally. I believe that other people should rule. However, I’d like to hang on to my own spot”.

All of this chimes with work Sparknow have been doing to rethink the diversity narrative.


unframing the picture | “Silent Partners” at the Fitzwilliam Museum – photo Sabine Jaccaud

Pause for a moment and imagine what happens if you stop thinking about it as a diversity narrative. What if you shift the territory to something a bit harder to pin down, having a plural organisation or a narrative of valuing difference? And then, how can a storytelling way of working with that shift help?

Here’s some of our thinking.

Diversity as a concept and programme runs the danger of being two things: a rather abstract noun and a label. Both can be removed from day to day reality and have an implied narrative around them which allow people to project their own views as evangelists, victims, enemies, and so on. By shifting the narrative to different grounds – we’ve suggested ‘valuing difference’ but it could be another theme – which sit in between the normal discussion spaces, you can shift everybody’s relationship with the theme, with each other and with their own responsibilities and actions. That is to say, you can reinvigorate the discussions, create shared meaning around the fresh narrative, and generate a different set of actions and outcomes. Because people can’t pigeonhole it quite so readily, they might be more willing to pick it up, try it on for size, make it their own. Not just once, but day in and day out, watching, feeling, listening, observing, challenging, reflecting on the minute to minute minutiae of what it means to value difference.

It’s also necessary to find a way to acknowledge the more uncomfortable underbelly to these things. In the work we’ve done on thinking about ethics and governance frameworks, we’ve found storytelling approaches can be a very good way of dealing with the shadier side of things, or unspoken assumptions that can drive some very strong resistance and emotional reaction: Mary Midgley writes very well on this in ‘Wickedness’ when she speaks of the need to acknowledge the shadow side of things in order to achieve self-knowledge, wholeness and integrity:

The shadowy parts of the mind are an essential part of its form. To deny one’s shadow is to lose solidity, to become something of a phantom. Self-deception about it may increase our confidence, but it surely threatens our wholeness.

Storytelling can be a safe way to become undeceived. It can neutralise and give room to complex emotions, and by acknowledging, make it possible to embrace and integrate them. (What happens if you split away from emotions rather than integrating them is described by David Tuckett in his work on emotional finance, which provides insights which generalise well.)

Storytelling also fosters the plural organisation – one where a rich ecology of stories leads to resilience. In a recent email exchange about the difference between the way female and male leaders shape and use stories, I wrote this:

I think women see and tell the stories of their success quite differently and the generally male structures and cultures of most organisations don’t make room for this. This is along the lines of our experience of the difference in confidence between professional and operational staff. In legal and compliance, for example, the legal part is mostly lawyers and there’s a status thing around their legal qualifications. Compliance learns and applies skills from experience and is subtly lower status, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the lawyers. The analogy for me is around building an organisation which makes room for experience to be shared and multiple viewpoints to be considered – the plural organisation if you like – where insight emerges from collaboration around the challenge, and leadership is networked leadership, the ability to lead by convening and hosting and making that room, not by being on top. So the leaders serve rather than governing.

‘Valuing’ can also play both ways: into the internal culture and direction, and into the contribution that ‘valuing’ can make in a business sense, and this has the potential to make it a sharper, more business-like approach, while holding onto the intentions to have support, encouragement and well-being, in a decent and respectful workplace. It also demands that everyone values difference, from followers to leaders and peers.

There’s always the threat it doesn’t quickly overcome the deeper challenge, the ‘we welcome your difference’ challenge.

Yes, that’s pretty hard. Plus, as Wilfred Bion points out in ‘Learning from Experience’, we loathe learning, because it’s emotionally demanding and it often hurts. We’ll do almost anything we can to avoid it, by shoring ourselves up with what he calls – K (‘minus k’ – lots and lots of knowledge) – to stop learning leaking in and unsettling us.  – K leads to a kind of stripping or denuding of meaning through the accumulation of defensive knowledge as a means to avoid the painful emotional engagement necessary for the growth of integrated knowledge.

So however you go, you need to be persistent in keeping things alive, hard to pin down, constantly demanding renegotiation, so that everybody is forced to live in the story rather than talk about it from the outside. That’s pretty messy, and like the bear hunt, you can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you can’t go round it, you gotta go right through it. 

One way to do this is to think much more strategically about the role of culture in business – not the way the word culture, and business relationships with culture, have been appropriated (and tidied up of course), but by bringing music, drama, poetry, language, art, into the heart of work in a way that’s visceral and demanding. That’s a related argument for a different blog though. An unfinished thread to pick up at another time.

When I went to speak to Alice Maynard at the end of the conference, we talked about the straitjacket of the hero’s journey, which is so often the default assumption about admirable leadership. Alice observed that it’s hard to hold onto her own real story of leadership – let’s call it a knitting and weaving way rather than the hero’s journey or the quest story – because she’s pressed to position herself more as a heroine. But in collaborative leadership – in fostering a plural organisation – there’s not much drama or excitement to it, because its so much about the patience to listen, collaborate and nurture the spaces in which new stories are shaped.  And it’s about tolerance, not of others so much, but of your own complex and shifting emotions and reactions. Tolerance of others starts with tolerance of yourself. And it involves being constantly interested in, and willing to be vulnerable to, the unknown quantity.

So it’s not just the organisation that needs to be plural, or the diversity agenda that needs shifting onto new territory. There’s also a role for each of us, whoever we are, to play in bringing that shift about.

That does take diversity of courage.

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