To Be or Not To Be ME? That is the question!

Wouldn't our organisations be simpler and happier places to work in if we all just 'fitted' in? If I had a pound for every time an organisation questioned whether he or she is a good fit I would be a very wealthy woman!

So exactly what do organisations mean when they say a person has a good 'fit'? They mean that the person will fit in culturally by naturally falling into the rhythm of how things get done around here and, the concept of 'fit' is almost exclusively used in recruitment or performance appraisal processes. We employ and work in our own 'sameness'.

In layman's terms, this means having employees that are 'just like us'. People who make us feel comfortable and safe. They ascribe to our beliefs and values, they speak our lingo, they think like we do, they behave in the way we do. It is a place where we belong to a homogeneous community and therefore the identity and thus culture of the organisation continues to be safeguarded.

However, if everyone is thinking the same way and behaving in the same way then where is the scope for innovation, problem solving and consequently growth? Where is the opportunity to challenge the status quo so that creativity becomes a way of working? How can new skills, knowledge and approaches flourish? How can we engage in honest conversations? How can collaboration between areas of differing expertise happen? How can persons of difference be integrated and valued? And, ultimately, how can an organisation experience exposure to transformation and change?

In my research, I learnt that leaders' rhetoric is not congruent with what happens on the ground. That is, despite stating that we are open to, and value diversity there is often a clash between diverse individuals and cultural fit once they enter the organisation. In fact, I have had leaders say to me that they encourage the recruitment of people from diverse backgrounds but the newcomers still need to fit into their culture: "if you learn the rules of the game you will be embraced; if you do not fit you will not be recognised or rewarded. We recruit difference but when they get here they must be like us".

In my personal experiences as a woman of colour there have been times where employers have excluded me because " I was too black to work in their middle-class white environment". I was not awarded a contract that I pitched for because of both my color and gender. I have been told that I have been excluded from conversations because my intellect will overshadow and threaten other senior executives and let go from a senior role when the Partners found out that I earned more than they did. I've been advised not to talk about my degrees and some cases, asked to remove degrees from my CV. And, despite my achievements, I've been isolated because I did not attend Oxford or Cambridge University.

These experiences are painful and, often, a high toll on self-esteem can be paid. When people are under-appreciated or discounted simply because of identity and who they are or, because the ways in which they approach things are different, then they no longer feel engaged or have a wish to contribute to the prosperity and longevity of the organisation. It becomes a lose-lose scenario as both the person of difference and the organisation loses out. As one female senior leader told me "the very thing that makes you a competent, strong and successful as a middle manager is a pain in the ass at senior/executive level...this window between being assertive and aggressive is 1 cm. so, either a woman is seen as a wilting flower or you are a Rottweiler, and this line is so delicate for women to tread".

This is when I ask the question: "To be or not to be me"? Is my desire to be accepted and to belong greater than my need to be authentic and true to myself? Do I want to be valued for my different ways of thinking and being due to the different experiences that I bring to the table? Am I able to withstand the friction that my difference might generate? Will my confidence be questioned as arrogance? Will my capability to challenge those that are senior to me be perceived as confrontational? Ultimately, why would you want to bring your talent to the table where the cost is an erosion of self? Could this be why so many highly talented and bright individuals are drawn towards more entrepreneurial ventures?

As Jason Lauritsen stated, 'organisational cultures operate like an immune system when left unchecked. There are cultural antibodies that attack difference'. Accepting, involving and valuing people who are different to us shapes an agile and resilient culture, builds open relationships, creates dispersed leadership, energises teams, and delivers reality rooted in optimal performance.

The workforce mix needs to change and reflect our global village. This will lead to the fostering of superior customer experiences, visionary leadership and increased employee engagement that translate into a healthy and robust bottom -line. Organisations need to move away from having employees who look and sound like us. Leaders need to stand back and pay attention to this term "fit" and how it attracts or detracts talent to or away from their organisations.

As a leader once said to me: "a diversity-based army led by an artful leader has more chance of navigating turbulent situations". Let "to be or not to be me" become a fading question. Let it become a win-win scenario.