Thursday, June 21, 2012

Are Diversity Initiatives Worthless?

Recently, Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, made some controversial comments at a Women in the Economy conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.  What did he say that upset at least some of the female attendees?  First, he said that working hard and showing how your skills can benefit the company are the keys to getting ahead.  In effect, he said, “over deliver … performance is it.”    Unlike what some may believe, this is not what upset them; who could argue against this, in the first place?
He then criticized mentorship programs and other diversity initiatives for women, referring to them as “victims’ units.”  He even mentioned some female executives who approached him while he was at GE, telling him that they refused to participate in these kinds of programs.  By inference, Welch would probably also argue against any kind of diversity initiatives for African-Americans or minorities.
We all know the numbers.  Of the Fortune 500 companies, only 3% have a female CEO today.  A survey of 60 major companies by McKinsey shows women occupying 53% of entry-level positions, 40% of manager positions, and only 19% of C-suite jobs.

In my experience, Welch represents the mindset of a generation of white male executives (mostly in their sixties), some of who still believe that there is true meritocracy in corporations, that there are no barriers to anyone getting ahead other than your own internal ambitions, and that regardless of the culture or work environment, those who are successful find ways to make it to the top.  In this Darwinian world, there is no need to do anything special or different for diverse groups.  You just have to figure it all out, since “the cream rises to the top.”  For these executives (I know; I have worked with quite a few of them in my career), diversity initiatives, affinity groups, and support networks for women (and by extension, African-Americans) are unnecessary and even unfair.  And some women and African-Americans agree with them!  Taken to an extreme, what Welch implies is that managers should have no responsibility in developing others.  Just leave them alone and let them figure it out for themselves. 

Contrary to what Welch implies, there continue to be cultural, systemic, and organizational barriers to success in today’s work place.  The evidence is overwhelming, and I don’t need to rehash this in this column.  Here are a couple of points I would like to offer based on what we know from the science and practice of Industrial-Organizational Psychology. 

First, we know from research and from schema theory that we have filters and expectations about individuals that tend to bias our perception of them.  And one of these pervasive biases is a “similar-to-me” bias.  We tend to like those who are like us, and tend to react favorably to those with whom we perceive to have similarities.  No question that this has been a barrier to females getting ahead.  Fortunately, through diversity programs and the track record of many outstanding women in the work force, I believe that individuals in corporations today are more “enlightened” than they have been in the past.  But the biases still exist.  In Europe during the eighties, many orchestras changed their practice from having judges watch and evaluate potential orchestra members audition in front of them to having them audition “blind.”  That is to say, the applicants performed behind a curtain so that the judges could not tell whether the applicants were male or female.  This simple practice led to a dramatic increase in the proportion of female orchestra members.

Second, while very few if any corporate executives would argue against evaluating people other than for their performance (as Welch suggests), how that performance is viewed can be subject to bias.  Here, attribution theory can shed much light.  Attribution theory states that we as managers not only evaluate performance, but also try to determine the causes of that performance.  Is the reason for their performance based on ability, effort, luck, or some other factor?  A manager’s evaluation of the potential of an individual may depend therefore not just on his or her performance but also ona the manager’s answer to this question of what caused the performance.

Welch implies that it is all about performance.  But wait.  Isn’t this the same Jack Welch who in GE introduced the famous 2 X 2 matrix where managers were evaluated not just on their performance (on the one axis), but also on their values (the other axis), and that a manager who performs well but who does not have the right values should be “terminated?”

Unfortunately, our biases creep into our evaluation of the causes of performance.  There is a lot of evidence, for example, that male managers tend to attribute the performance of their female subordinates more to luck than to ability or effort.

So what are the implications to individuals and to corporations of the Welch assertions?  First, for individuals, there is no question that your performance is your “foot in the door,” your ticket for punching your way to the dance.  This will mean making some personal sacrifices and trade-offs, and working some long hours to build a successful track record if your ambition is to be a successful executive.  But I don’t believe that this means rejecting whatever support and help you can take advantage of, whether within your company or outside the company.  For example, many of us need to build our networks (as Reid Hoffman calls it, your personal board of directors) and if your company offers programs to help you with this, there is no reason not to take advantage of them.  Believe me, the Welches of the world (white males in their sixties and seventies), when they were rising stars, had their own network and support system.  It may not have been formalized, but they still took advantage of them.  And many of these groups excluded women, whether intentional or not.

For managers, this means that your responsibility as a manager includes developing and coaching others.  Catalyst just published some recent research demonstrating that a majority of high potentials received developmental support and are in turn developing others in their organizations.  This “culture of talent development” is critical for companies today, and yet Welch, of all people, would seem to suggest it is not necessary, or even desirable.      

For corporations, continuing to provide mentoring programs, affinity groups, and similar initiatives – and more broadly implementing diversity initiatives – will provide them with a competitive advantage.  After all, the business case for diversity in attracting, developing and retaining talent is well-established, notwithstanding the opinion of Mr. Welch.