When historians look back at how companies and society tackled diversity and inclusion in the first half of this century, they will most likely comment that good intentions led to far slower progress than intended. They will point out that well-meant initiatives, such as implicit bias training, not only failed to have any lasting impact, but strengthened people’s illusory belief that they at least were not really racist or discriminatory.
One intervention that has made some impact is reverse mentoring, where senior executives from a privileged majority are mentored by junior employees from diverse backgrounds. There are many examples of radical change in perception by executives and rapid advancement of the more junior person, as they learn how the system works and how to manoeuvre within it. But here’s the rub – changing attitudes and behaviours of a handful of executives doesn’t have much effect on the system. Moreover, being able to point to individual examples of minority advancement (“Didn’t he or she do well!”) perpetuates the system, because it implies that anyone can make it, when the reality is that most people don’t have the benefit of political insight and patronage from above. The hidden systems that prevent inclusion remain as strong as they were.
Reciprocal mentoring is one innovation that might just make a real and substantial difference. It starts with the intention of addressing the system, rather than individuals. Pairs of senior executives from privileged backgrounds and junior employees from less privileged backgrounds form co-learning partnerships. They mentor each other and at the same time attempt to identify how the organization’s systems influence opportunity – systems such as appraisal, how members of project teams and working parties are selected, or how the grapevine works. A cohort of mentoring pairs meet to share their insights and to develop practical strategies to address the issues from both above and below.
This reciprocal approach is still very nascent so in an effort to build upon the current work in the arena, I’ve recently created a free guide to Reciprocal Mentoring Best Practice which is available on our Reciprocal Mentoring page.
In addition, I’m also running a free community of interest on the topic with quarterly webinars to encourage sharing of best practice between a diverse group of world leading companies and create some original research. The inaugural meeting takes place next Friday 31st March – register here to secure your place.
© David Clutterbuck, 2023