Wisdom//

This One Thing Is Crucial For Creating Connection in the Workplace

It’s simpler to implement than you think.

Courtesy of Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

The British humanist and novelist E. M. Forster famously wrote ‘Only connect’. And he was absolutely right. While the Earth is vast, we live in a small world full of opportunities to connect with each other, and it’s only when we do this that the walls between us come down. Yet the majority of us seem to find this incredibly diffi­cult, caught up as we are in the things that divide us.

In one sense, of course, we are more connected than we’ve ever been before. Whether we live in the remotest parts of the world or in great international cities such as London or New York, we can connect across the globe at the click of a button. So it’s a great irony that the economic gap between those at the centre of society and those at the periphery is ever-growing. Our great cities of culture and commerce are in fact cities of strangers, where individuals have rejected relationships with neighbours in favour of superficial rela­tionships with an online community. We often ignore passersby as we get on with our lives. We may SMH (Shake My Head) at news­feeds that show injustice at home and abroad, yet somehow we continue on, unaffected by what happens to ‘others’.

And yet, as the MP Jo Cox argued so passionately before she was murdered in 2016, we have far more in common than that which divides us. This isn’t head-in-the-clouds liberalism speaking; this is scientific fact. Genetically, human beings are 99.9 per cent identical.* Our bodies perform in the same way – we breathe the same, we eat the same, we sleep the same – and yet we choose to focus so much on the 0.1 per cent that makes us different – the 0.1 that determines external physical attributes such as hair, eye and skin colour. This focus has been the cause of so much tension and strife in the world, yet by re-evaluating the importance we place on it, we have the power to change how it affects our future. What if we celebrated that 0.1 per cent rather than feared it? What amazing things might follow for our society? The need to do this has never been so urgent – thanks to the recent political upheavals of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the rise of extremism and economic instability, we are now more divided than ever before – but the ability to change this is firmly within our grasp. To heal the wounds that have been exposed, we need to diversify, and we need to do it now. This is an issue I’ve felt passionate about for a long time: it informs my work, my relationships and my everyday life. And it’s more than a question of encouraging human kindness; I’ve long suspected that there is a hidden financial cost to our lack of diversity. The research that I have undertaken for this book has confirmed that.

I decided to write this book, often drawing on my own experiences, to present the issues that a lack of diversity is causing for us today, alongside the arguments for the social, moral and economic benefits of diversity. You’ll also find practical tools and ideas for how we might go about creating a new normal that is equitable, diverse and prosperous.

Why now?

On 28 August 1963, Dr Martin Luther King – for me, one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, without question – delivered his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I have always found his words, laying out such a powerful and clear vision for global equality and unity, and delivering a message of hope that we could all be part of, absolutely mind-blowing. He presented a comprehensive vision and framework for the much-needed journey that would get us there, and I firmly believe it’s one of the best examples of the type of society we should all be striving to create. Now, over half a century later, where are we on that journey that Dr King laid out for us, and what does this mean for humanity?

The sad truth is, it’s a journey that many of us are yet to embark on. Prophesying his own assassination, King ended his last speech with ‘I may not get there [to the Promised Land] with you’, and indeed he didn’t. And there have been claims that if Dr King were still alive he would be incredibly disappointed by what he saw: a world divided by gender, nationality, class, sexual orientation, age, culture, and, of course, the two big Rs of Race and Religion.

I would argue that, actually, Dr King would not be so disappointed in what he saw, but rather in what he couldn’t see. It’s what lies beneath the surface and facade of ‘tolerance’ and political correctness that causes the real malaise – the limiting viewpoints that are hidden inside us, that we rarely speak of but often think about and, worse, sometimes act upon. Whether they are conscious or unconscious, it’s these hidden, unexamined attitudes that shape the inequality we see in society.

The evidence of that is clear in the political upheaval that has occurred in both the UK and US recently. There are many parallels between the shock results of Britain’s Brexit referendum and the Electoral College victory of Donald Trump in the US in 2016. As a board member of the official Remain campaign, I was certainly not in favour of Brexit and put all my passion and energy into trying to convince the British public that Britain was Stronger IN Europe. The result was a painful and bitter blow, and one that still hurts. We will only see the true fall-out now that Article 50 has been triggered and the negotiations have begun . . .

However, we are beginning to see what this new world looks like. For many, Brexit represented freedom. Yet one of the worrying repercussions of Brexit, which the experts didn’t anticipate, is the rise in hate crime and the open season on anything or anyone deemed ‘other’. Since the referendum I’ve heard phrases such as, ‘This doesn’t feel like modern Britain’, ‘A victory for xenophobia’, and ‘The revolt of the working class’. The same seems to be true of Donald Trump’s victory in the US, with David Duke, the former KKK leader, cele­brating it as ‘one of the most exciting nights of my life’. I feel huge disappointment for those who wanted us to stay part of the EU, and fear what might happen to tolerance of the ‘other’ in the US – but, more importantly, I want to understand why these results went the way they did, shaking up the status quo in response to campaigns which focused on immigration and fear. The short answer is that both Brexit and Trump were symptoms of our failure to address the issues of fairness and inequality in our globalized economy.

The majority of us recognize that there are things greater than ourselves that can unite us: the world we share and our common humanity. We know that the need for understanding, connection and solidarity as one human family is more urgent now than ever. The greatest challenges of our time demand our cooperation. But how do we achieve this? When we have been separate for so long, change is not easy. But it is necessary. That’s where this book comes in.

Why me?

The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, I was born and raised in the East End of London, home to a diverse range of people. The part of town that I grew up in, Walthamstow – or Wilcomestu, as the Anglo-Saxons called it – means ‘place of welcome’. Coincidentally, the Ghanaian greeting for hello is Awaakba, which also means ‘welcome’, so being welcoming is part of both my British and Ghanaian heritage – literally.

During my early years, Walthamstow more or less lived up to its name. We had the longest street market in Europe, where you could get anything from anywhere. The older generation of market stall­holders were mainly white working-class survivors of the Second World War. They were community-minded, and would call out to you if they knew your mum, chucking you an apple or a bag of sweets from their stall. My school was like a blue-collar version of the UN and proclaimed the belief that diversity was an asset. All the main religious holidays were celebrated – my Indian friends always brought in the best sweets on the Guru Nanak celebration. I was well liked and, being an inquisitive soul, I often found myself at my friends’ houses celebrating Shabbat, Eid and Diwali. My best friend, Levan Trong, was Chinese Vietnamese, so this meant free Mandarin lessons and amazing New Year parties.

This multicultural upbringing served as a great basis for my media career, paving the way for me to connect comfortably with people from all walks of life. After leaving school, I started an internship with Kiss FM, a vibrant, fresh radio station that looked to unite the young people of London through music. So wherever I went, it was a given for me that difference was not a problem. In fact, it was cool, and what London was all about. I carried this belief with me from radio to television, to my first presenting job. I was getting to do what I had enjoyed my entire life: meeting and talking to people from anywhere and everywhere.

In 2008 I moved to the US in the hope of finding that holy grail: the secret formula for ‘cracking America’. I wouldn’t say I ‘cracked’ America – rather, I made a small dent in her West and East Coast – but with the support and mentorship of Arianna Huffington, Karan and Sarah Brown, I was able to sample a slice of the American Pie when they helped me to co-found a women’s network that was designed to facilitate this generation’s female leaders paying it forward to the next: Women: Inspiration and Enterprise (WIE) (www.wienetwork.co.uk).

I was also lucky enough to start working in American TV quite quickly, and one day, when I was filming in Las Vegas, a young sound assistant appeared on set. I noticed him straight away – and imme­diately felt uneasy around him. He hadn’t behaved aggressively towards me, but he was covered in tattoos. And I’m not talking David Beckham-style ink, but rather what looked like gang markings. I suspected he’d probably had a tough upbringing, possibly had a few run-ins with the law in his time. But had I really just painted this picture and gained this insight into another person’s life based on some tattoos and a bad ponytail? Yes, I had. And, regardless of the illogic of my assumptions, I began to feel intimidated.

As a woman of colour, I am all too aware of the problems that can be caused by stereotyping. In fact, being excluded as a result of being a woman, and being excluded because of your race, are two forms of discrimination I understand first-hand. So you might think that I, of all people, should know better, and should get over my discomfort and preconceived ideas and just have a conversation with this man. But in that moment I couldn’t do it. And in that moment I suddenly understood both sides of this enigma – and how our fear of the ‘other’ (whatever that ‘other’ is for you) subconsciously influ­ences our behaviour. Whether we like it or not, ‘other-izing’ is something we all do, and ‘other-isms’ are something we all have.

I was about to quietly exclude this young man – not overtly (I’m far too polite and British for that), but subtly, which is even more soul-destroying: no eye contact and false politeness. Basically, I was prepared to pretend he wasn’t there so I could feel comfortable. But I’m happy to say that I didn’t. In that light-bulb moment, I chose to be my better self and to challenge some of my own limiting beliefs.  

Limiting beliefs that I didn’t even realize I had. So I went over nerv­ously and did what usually comes very naturally to me: I spoke to him.

As it happens, he had indeed had a difficult start in life. However, he had also done a great deal of studying and self-development, and was now committed to making a better life for himself and was extremely excited about the possibility of a career as a soundman. He was brimming with enthusiasm and full of dreams – dreams that, I sensed, he secretly hoped wouldn’t be dashed by those prejudging him. Fortunately, our lead soundman had looked beyond his exterior and taken him on as an apprentice, but I couldn’t help but lament what it would take for him to rise above the limiting beliefs of others in order to achieve his full potential. He was truly a gentle soul, yet I could sense the unspoken burden he had to carry because of his appearance and the effect it had on people like me – he had to go out of his way to seem unthreatening, and to overcompensate with helpfulness.

Now, I grew up around men like this, so it was not as if I had never encountered someone like him, but I had never encountered someone like him in this context. I work in an industry that, in both its on- and off-screen talent, is not known for its diversity. I have been a very outspoken critic of this, yet I didn’t realize that I had become so accustomed to the lack of diversity at work that when the status quo was challenged, even I had to adjust.

I ended up having one of the most enlightening conversations of my life with this young man – and I realized that, had I not been able to put aside my issues around his appearance, I would have missed out on a defining moment that not only changed the way I think, but also enabled me to truly understand both sides of a problem that affects me personally. It made me wonder how many of us miss out on enriching, enlightening, even magical moments every day due to our failure to put aside our issues with external packaging.

Part of the reason so many of us are reluctant to honestly address our ism’s or voice our pain from being otherized is because it involves guilt and shame, two emotions most humans seek to avoid at all costs. Family issues that involve these emotions often go unspoken and unresolved, and the same is true for societal issues; but, as we know from our personal relationships, ignoring conflicts doesn’t dissolve them, it just allows them to fester, breed resentment and then some­times explode. I still have a funny feeling in my stomach every time I recount this story, because to own the positive outcome, I have to accept that I went into the situation with prejudice. And this is not who I consider myself to be. But this belief is itself limited, because we are all hardwired with stereotypes – perceptions of what looks like safety and comfort, and what looks unfamiliar, something to be kept out. At times these ideas protect us, but they often trap us, too. Stereotypical assumptions on who should lead and who should follow limit potential, which in turn limits us all. Those to whom we mentally close our gates may well possess the answers to some of the greatest challenges of our age: extremism, economic instability, poverty, and the sustainability of the planet itself. To solve these complex problems (which don’t appear to be going anywhere), we need to nurture the greatest minds of our age – whatever body they reside in.

Why this book?

The aim of this book is to help people take a more positive view of others and their differences. It is not, by any means, about privileged white male bashing, but rather the opposite. My argument throughout this book is that by operating in a more inclusive way towards everyone we will be able to realize the talents and potential of everyone. Scapegoating any one group or defining an individual solely by their demographic or otherness blocks us from having the honest and open dialogue we need in order to create a fairer society. To achieve ‘business as unusual’ we have to make a compelling case that demon­strates that diversity is better for everyone, even those who will need to share a little more than they have previously, thus helping the UK and the US – two of the richest countries on the planet in terms of diversity (and in terms of monetary wealth) – to meet and overcome the challenges of the twenty-first century.

This isn’t a book that offers a whimsical argument for being nice to one another. It provides solid evidence of what’s going wrong and why, and offers practical tools and arguments for how we can change things. To use a business analogy, even the novice investor knows that the best way to achieve a return on your investment is to diversify your portfolio. If you invest all your capital in one place, you leave yourself vulnerable to fluctuations in that particular market. In the same way, companies need to ensure a diverse mix in their employee portfolio so that new ideas from people with different skill sets give them a competitive edge. Because when everybody thinks the same, we miss out on the oppor­tunity to meet challenges with fresh ideas, we become complacent and we continue to do what we’ve always done before. The question that every company and every community has to ask is: ‘Is everyone in the room?’ And this book will try to help make sure they are.

From Diversify by June Sarpong. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.

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