Agency & Resiliency (#86)

Reporting shallow statistics about the number of under represented employees tells us nothing. Diversity initiatives fail if they do not fundamentally alter the institutions power relationships.

A very large crowd gathered in a town square, colorful banners and flags can be seen
Agency & Reciliency, JLP

When diversity programs are measured by their economic impact they miss the mark. Instead they should be measured by a rise in individual agency, an increase in the sense of belonging, and an overall willingness for the institution to learn. Reporting shallow statistics about the number of under represented employees tells us nothing. Hiring more woman executives and more black engineers does little to address the lack of opportunities, dismantle the hierarchy of privilege, or favor belonging over conformity. Diversity initiatives fail if they do not fundamentally alter the institutions power relationships.

Agency is the capacity to make choices and the empowerment to put them into practice. It requires belief in our own capability, establishing a high self-esteem and self-worth. It is cultivated along with a sense of belonging and confirmed from our experiences in a safe environment. It allows us to build community and find our tribe.

Resiliency, the capacity to adapt to disruptions that threaten our wellbeing, is a product of agency. The four types of resiliency are:

  • Anticipatory: the ability to avoid trouble by being prepared
  • Absorptive: the capacity to cope with the unexpected
  • Adaptive: the flexibility to adapt to future risk
  • Transformative: the wherewithal to make structural changes to reduce risk

To harness the benefits of diversity programs we must focus on providing agency and building resiliency because, when present together, they improve equality. To this end we establish an outline for moving beyond the superficial diversity metrics. We structure our efforts around three themes for an effective program.

First we establish a culture for honest discourse, one where curiosity and vulnerability are in large supply. We engage to learn from experiences different from our own, both in and outside our environment. We recognize that being silent when we are uncomfortable is being complicit, not neutral. This type of discourse builds trust, and establishes our openness to learn.

Next, we take an active role against discrimination by learning how systems of privilege or oppression prevent opportunity and force inequality in society at large. These systems span race, class, religion, status, and sexual orientation. We then apply our knowledge to probe how our organization's culture may reproduce these systems, identifying when and where we have stereotypes and assumptions that adversely effect our employees. We catalog our blind spots and personal biases that act as defenses to change.

We can now leverage the cultural differences we have identified to effect change. Armed with our collective knowledge we seek out discriminatory practices and  make substantial changes to our process and procedures. For example, we embrace a wider range of voices to redefine our promotion and review processes. We replace stereotypes with legitimate requirements for each role, accepting that there is more than one way to succeed, especially when it may not look like our own individual path.

Long term economic improvements only result from diversity program where agency and resilience are granted, forcing fundamental shifts in established power dynamics. Without these meaningful changes, touting hiring numbers is nothing more than a slight of hand, with the goal of protecting the very systems that created these inequalities in the first place.

"Why should anyone need an economic rationale for affirming the agency and dignity of any group of human beings?"
- Robin J. Ely, David A. Thomas, Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case

The Paradox Pairs series is an exploration of the contradictory forces that surround us.  A deeper study finds that these forces often complement each other if we can learn to tap into the strength of each. See the entire series by using the Paradox Pairs Index.