Culture eats strategy for breakfast: well that’s my experience as a senior manager with lead responsibility for equality and diversity.

We changed the policy. We introduced new procedures. We set targets and introduced monitoring arrangements. We developed a training programme. We provided senior management with regular progress reports. We held conferences, ran workshops and we blogged. We encouraged staff to say what they were really thinking, we challenged the myths, ignorance and stereotypes. We didn’t shirk from the awkward questions. We promoted best practise. Yet nothing changed.

We were enthusiastic and energetic champions of the strategy. It was a good strategy. So why did people tell us nothing had really changed?

We had underestimated how difficult it was to change “the way things are done round here”. People said the right things, reluctantly followed the new procedures and attended the conferences, workshops and training courses with varying degrees of enthusiasm. No one actually disagreed with the policy, at least not publically. Some complained that the procedures were long, time consuming and unnecessary. Others said they couldn’t afford the time to go on the training courses. The targets were described as over ambitious, the monitoring arrangements too time consuming and some argued it was counterproductive to report such a lack of progress to senior management.

So we shifted the focus away from policy, procedures and targets and the implied criticism of managers’ performance. We set out to help managers deal with the day to day issues in managing a diverse workforce.

The young woman who finds herself managing staff much older than her who have been in the job much longer than her. The member of staff who complains to their manager that they are the butt of jokes about their sexuality. The only black member of the team who says she feels isolated and excluded as other members of the team don’t include her in their out of work activities or conversations. A manager who tackles a member of their team about frequent absences only to be accused of failing to take proper account of her disability. The manager who picks up on grumbles in the team about a colleague’s frequent requests for time off during religious festivals. The frustration of being part of a management team where every meeting starts with a chat about the weekend’s football results. The command and control traditional management style where decisions are made without real debate, questioning is discouraged even considered disloyal.  

These may be viewed as personality conflicts rather than equality and diversity issues, however how these issues are dealt with says much about the management culture in the organisation and the likely success of an equality and diversity strategy. The aim is to provide support to managers, increase their confidence in dealing with people issues and in so doing create a “safe” work environment in which the equality and diversity strategy could be successfully delivered.

Peer group support is provided through management learning sets which help managers appreciate that all managers face people management issues. Practical support, confidence building and skills development is provided through executive coaching, management surgeries and mentoring. Ownership of strategies is achieved through regular meetings between senior managers and the wider management group to talk things through.

It’s not a quick fix but stops culture eating strategy.