If you’ve been wondering how to attack systemic racism but finding it to be an invisible foe, then you’re in good company.

This week, Hive Learning and Matthew Syed Consulting settled down to listen to Matthew Syed and Manoj Badale talk about their personal and evolving perspectives of racism, weigh up lessons (and warnings) from football, and ideas on how businesses can fuel progress in breaking down systemic barriers to diversity.

The dynamic duo explored what even the most well-meaning of businesses get wrong when it comes to the DEI agenda and how detrimental this can be to creating meaningful systemic change and high performance. And, managing to call time on their jovial rivalry, the pair offered their expert takes on what businesses serious about sustaining positive change should be doing instead.

In case you aren’t familiar with their work, Matthew Syed is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. His best-selling books examine mindset, high performance and, most recently, cognitive diversity; Manoj Badale is the Co-Founder of Blenheim Chalcot, the UK’s leading digital venture builder.

Racism is different today than it was a few decades ago. Matthew and Manoj warmed up their conversation by walking the line of how racism has shifted and evolved in the UK throughout their lives to date.

An atmosphere of derogatory terms and overt hostility has been near expunged thanks in part to progressive attitudes and a climate of greater respect. Still, we cannot ignore the persistent lack of equal opportunities in today’s UK. And the structures and systems responsible are proving to be a trickier foe.

Structural racism is a far more subtle and elusive opponent than what we grew up with.

— Matthew Syed

Matthew and Manoj agreed that the renewed fury stoked by the murder of George Floyd is justified and the mounting pressure of activism for justice long overdue is a positive thing.

However, wise steps must be taken now and we need to be able to navigate complexity to get our strategy right. Matthew posed that we need to embrace nuance and accept the good and the bad in understanding where our society came from and where we stand now. Manoj pointed out that we need a finer understanding of the richly varied perspectives, stories, and needs that are often lumped under a “BAME” label.

Further, Matthew reminded business leaders to stretch their mindset and understand the multiple strands of this conversation if they want to meaningfully advance.

It’s partly an issue of social justice. It is partly an issue of meritocracy. But there’s a third strand to this […] which is that organizations who recruit diverse populations perform better. And I think that one of the problems is that we haven’t quite landed that argument in business.

— Matthew Syed

Appeal to a sense of competitiveness. Market selection would suggest that, if you don’t hire diverse teams, you will be outstripped by those that do. Football managers drew on their need for a superior competitive edge to access more diverse pools of talent and, in doing so, wrote over the historic whiteness of football teams. So, organizations should borrow from this sense of urgency — to stay on top and even to survive, you must consider broader pools. You must diversify your talent.

Identify and redesign ‘discretionary space’. Both Matthew and Manoj found sport to be a leveler when growing up. Within sport, where performance and merit are clear cut and competition is high speed, there is less discretionary space. Discretionary space is where decision-makers’ minds are prone to be swayed by unconscious biases that can unfairly advantage or disadvantage players. Perhaps, they note, decisions in the corporate world allow for too much discretionary space and reproduce inequalities we are trying to fight.

But here’s the caveat. Even football has work to do. Manoj pointed out that the upper echelons of football are not diverse at all. Matthew, too, conceded that sports journalism suffers from a lack of diversity. This can blind its well-meaning members to exactly what needs to be done to advance access and inclusion. So, heed this warning from the world of football: diversity in one area does not mean the whole system has been dismantled.

By this point in the conversation, droves of questions had rolled into the Zoom chat from our 280+ attendees. Matthew and Manoj jockeyed their wisdom and experience in tandem to respond. Here, we’ve extracted four key actions that you can put into play as a leader.

✅ Pick 2-3 areas of your organization at a time and focus on redesigning them so they are fairer and allow equal opportunity. While diversifying candidate pools is important, look beyond recruitment. Scrutinize systemic barriers in networks. Look at progression. And retention. How are you actively developing talent from underrepresented groups in your day-to-day activities?

That’s something business leaders grapple with — it’s not just the issue of removing unconscious bias from recruitment. But how do you also create equal opportunities through progression and retention?

— Manoj Badale

Matthew added that, as a focus area, you might look at how you harness diverse thinking — or if indeed you have it all. Even if you have visible diversity, your people may not be contributing diverse ideas. And if they were educated at similar institutions or forged their professional mindsets along well-worn routes in your organization, they may not be cognitively diverse at all.

✅ Calibrate your culture to allow for disruptive, competing ideas. Matthew said that you need to kindle social dynamism from onboarding. Do your people know that they can challenge and disrupt from day one? Or do cultural messages solidify their thinking and train them to stick with the status quo? To galvanize buy-in at every level, tie the need for cognitive diversity to competitiveness in your market.

If you don’t get disrupted from within, you’ll get disrupted from without.

— Matthew Syed

✅ The single thing you can do as a leader to create lasting change? Legitimize the conversation, put the power in the hands of your people, and prepare to experiment.

The answer is that it’s not your responsibility, and you have to shift your frame from trying to provide the answers — holistically or specifically. It is your responsibility to create a conversation throughout the organization and legitimize that conversation. And create a set of metrics that tracks the success of the change because history has suggested that business delivers what’s measured. The answers are going to be surprising and they’re not going to come from the boardrooms or the management teams.

— Manoj Badale

✅ Focus on action. The approach to performance and progression is a much-overlooked barrier to diverse talent reaching the upper echelons of an organization. Many organizations focus simply on hiring diverse talent without looking at their culture. Your culture is made up of ‘how we do things around here’. It’s all of the tiny actions your people take every day — from how they run meetings to how they give and distribute feedback. If you want to create the conditions for diverse themes to thrive, you must focus on building daily habits of inclusion.

✅ Measure behavior change. Design metrics that report on fundamental activities in the organization such as activities in meetings and processes. Very quickly, people will see the link between the key behaviors that work and the impact on performance. Ultimately, this is more likely to sustain a deep change compared to measuring performance alone.

Matthew Syed
Writer, Journalist and Broadcaster

Matthew Syed is an author and highly acclaimed speaker in the field of high performance. He has written six best-selling books on the subject of mindset and high performance – Bounce, Black Box Thinking, Rebel Ideas, The Greatest, and his celebrated children’s books, You Are Awesome and The You Are Awesome Journal – and has worked with many leading organizations to build a mindset of continuous improvement. He is also a multi-award-winning journalist for The Times and a regular contributor to television and radio.

In his most recent best-seller – Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking – Matthew argues that individual intelligence is no longer enough to solve today’s complex problems; to truly succeed we must harness the power of ‘cognitive diversity’. Rebel Ideas uncovers the best-kept secrets of the world’s most successful teams, bringing insights from psychology, anthropology and data science, whilst drawing on a dazzling range of intriguing case-studies.

Matthew’s work explores a thought-provoking approach to high performance in the context of a complex and fast-changing world. By understanding the intimate connection between mindset and high performance, organizations can unlock untapped potential in individuals and teams, driving innovation and agility to secure a future-proofed environment. A TEDx video of Matthew speaking about growth mindset can be viewed on YouTube.

Matthew is also co-founder of Matthew Syed Consulting (MSC); the company has worked with an impressive portfolio of clients to build growth mindset cultures and drive higher performance in individuals, teams and organizations. Matthew Syed Consulting’s cutting-edge thought leadership program and digital learning tools are becoming a catalyst for real and lasting change within business and the public sector.

Matthew also works very closely with the education sector to help improve mindsets in schools and young people. He is an active founding member of the charity Greenhouse Sports and an ambassador for the PiXL Educational Foundation.

Manoj Badale
Co-Founder @Blenheim Chalcot

Manoj Badale is Co-founder of Blenheim Chalcot, the UK’s leading digital venture builder, with a track record of building over 40 disruptive businesses including Agilisys, ClearScore, Salary Finance and Hive Learning.

Blenheim Chalcot builds businesses under one guiding principle – that we can all go faster when we pool our knowledge and learn from one another, helping businesses adapt and evolve faster than the competition. Back in 2012, Manoj co-founded Hive Learning — a peer learning platform that helps organizations scale culture change digitally, with one particular ‘content platform’ that focuses on inclusion and belonging.

Hive Learning’s Inclusion Works program takes organizations on a journey from awareness through to action, helping organizations build an everyday habit of inclusion with 88% of participants taking action against bias.

Manoj is also the Chairman of H.R.H. The Prince of Wales’ British Asian Trust — a charity focused on reducing poverty and disadvantage for communities in South Asia. He was also Chairman of Operation Smile UK for over 10 years and is a founding Trustee of Charity Digital — a digital marketplace for charities.

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