Degrees of Freedom: Diversity Management in Bureaucratic Organisations

Organisations enacting classic management practices can present serious challenges for diversity and inclusion practitioners wanting to contest the status quo and carry out effective work. These bureaucratically oriented organisations impel routinised, rather than democratised, orientations to work, and their structures and cultures typically operate against logic that encourages individuation and self-actualisation.

Managers of bureaucratic organisations can justify authoritarian mannerisms, operating largely through highly systemised operational practices, by citing economic drivers that mandate stable and predictable environments. Because of this, the need to innovate, embrace change, transform and revolutionise organisational practices may be strongly resisted. Predictably, this impacts the ability of the diversity and inclusion practitioner to find degrees of freedom in their scope of work.

Over the past two centuries particularly, the external environment impacting classic management practices has forcibly catalysed bureaucratic organisations to adapt through the process of decentralisation. We are living in that epoch now. Degrees of freedom in the scope of diversity and inclusion work can more readily be found because of this change. A good starting point, for interested leaders and practitioners in the field of diversity management who are contemplating potentialities and degrees of freedom, might be asking probing questions concerning the decentralising nature of organisation life.

Decentralisation occurs via functional areas of the organisation that require increased democratisation, risk taking and innovation in order to stay competitive. The key here is to find apertures, through decentralising processes, which support increased primary and secondary levels of diversity, inclusion and self-agency. In reality, this might occur through new-found, yet traditionally atypical channels of employee communication; new network creations for marginal cohorts; and alternate forms of autonomy, for example, gradations of individual decision-making capacities. The practitioner should look for avenues that induce micro emancipation, through apertures in organisational systems and structures. The aim is to catalyse small changes that will lead to large employee effects.

Decentralisation may result in bifurcation points around key pressures, paradoxes or contradictions that block new, democratic ways of operating. The diversity and inclusion practitioner must deal with these contradictory tensions. For example, existing decision-making systems and forms of control, associated politics of hierarchy and careerism may block or undermine new developments. The diversity and inclusion practitioner must remember that new futures will always create tensions. Cognitive rigidity, otherwise known as black and white thinking, is a further problem, because resistance sits more with binary thinkers – those who operate at lower frequencies. However, finding creative ways to mobilise and retain desirable qualities on both sides, while minimising negative resistance, is a challenge worth fighting for.

Asking questions calls for careful interpretation of answers

Diversity leaders and practitioners would do well to employ an ongoing process of reflection when considering questions about the nature of their organisation. Accurately "reading" the organisation - observing, thinking and then interpreting the nature of organisational life - may catalyse new potentials and possibilities. Reflecting quite deliberately on the nature, complexities, ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions of the organisation, as well as contemplating the life of its members, may offer crucial insights into one's ability to question the status quo and make innovative inroads. I encourage diversity and inclusion practitioners to write about their insights and reflections continuously, and further, to contemplate on what is known; what is unknown; what is observed as well as document organisational patterns and what sense can be made of those insights. This personal and iterative and interpretative process is foundational. It is an ideal starting point, designed to compel the diversity and inclusion practitioner to think, before acting prematurely, about their capacity to deliver worthwhile outcomes.

My professional view is that no effective strategy can be developed or deployed without an interpretative process; otherwise, the practitioner has almost nothing of value to say or to contribute about the nature of the organisation beyond what others, either management or those in the industry, are saying and doing. The latter approach should be avoided at all costs. Firstly, the practitioner should be guided by their interpretations of the nature of the organisation and their capacity to do effective work, delivering in the process far superior and more convincing proposals which are particularly valuable during budget and resource allocation periods. More importantly, the diversity and inclusion practitioner will be highly influential when the time comes for building both internal and external coalitions from various interlocking networks, to assist in deploying a thoughtful strategy while concurrently pacifying potential enemies.

Practitioners might begin by concentrating broadly on macro-focused considerations. Is the organisation structured simply, or is there a higher level of discretion in organisational capacities? Is the organisation operating in stable or unpredictable economic environments? What are the patterns of economic growth? What are the environmental warning signals? What are the changing trends and patterns that could hint at economic turbulence? It is important to consider environmental dynamisms and potential technological, labour and sociopolitical influences, because these factors may ultimately function as resistance hubs. Could any of these environmental dynamisms create new opportunities or hinder progress in the pursuit of delivering a potentially sound strategy? Reading broader environmental conditions may assist in grasping key dimensions that challenge existing assumptions and may open new avenues for effective action.

The next question is, what organisation-wide strategies are currently in action or have withered? It might be worthwhile to take a chronological perspective. At this stage, it would also be wise to find out who created and deployed those strategies, the rationale for such strategies and, most importantly, the outcomes of those strategies to date. Moreover, consider whether the organisation is operating in a reactionary manner, reacting in response to both intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli? If so, what stimuli, and why? Or is the organisation moving towards market proactivity, seeking new ideas and approaches for strategy development? Another possible and interesting scenario: is the organisation willing to change operating practices that question status quo activities, in an attempt to catalyse innovation?

Thinking now in terms of the nature of work: is there a high, medium or low latitude for agency? What parts of organisational life are flexible or rigid? Moreover, are members predominatingly turning up to work just for the money? If so, why? Are members deeply committed to the values of the company? Are members searching for a challenge? Are they seeking involvement? Can you describe the culture, the espoused and enacted values and beliefs and the overall, underlying assumptions? Is the organisation largely driven by upper echelon rhetoric, with little action? Or is there substance behind what management transmits? Who, in the organisation, transmits substance? Make sure to find and recruit those individuals into your coalition. Finally, what are the overall presenting themes? Be detailed in the interpretative process and aim to continually fine-tune the analysis.

My research focus acknowledges the central importance of knowing the marginalised worker. Some important questions arise from this for the practitioner’s consideration and interpretation. How have the marginalised arrived at their capacity of work? What can the practitioner interpret about their journey? What about their challenges? What have the marginalised overcome? What have they endured? Are there privileged cohorts who have not faced challenges? It is almost impossible to know the marginalised worker’s life from a distance. The diversity and inclusion practitioner should join the marginalised worker in order to know them and intricately understand them: their struggles, their aspirations and their self-actualising efforts and life road blocks. It is important to learn about their experiences from their point of view and then to interpret those experiences in order to assist in their pursuit of greater agency and self-actualisation.

In interpreting responses to these questions, the diversity and inclusion practitioner may notice that there are often hidden and unquestioned assumptions in the management of bureaucratic organisations: assumptions built into the organisational structure, systems and information flows that can offer greater degrees of freedom and, therefore, can leverage the practitioner’s ability to catalyse change, develop an effective strategy and deliver honourable work. The central purpose of this careful, reflective approach is to reduce myopic viewpoints. Deliberate contemplation of the nature of organisational life produces a broader and more accurate “reading” of organisational reality. The observations, thoughts and interpretations generated should be ample, insightful and interesting. What this process means, in reality, is that the diversity and inclusion practitioner has embarked on the necessary thought-provoking foundational work that will give them conviction, respect and authority in voicing their ideas. Indeed, upper management should want to prevent the organisation from suffering as a result of requisite variety – in the organisational setting, a system that insulates itself from diversity and inclines to atrophy.

Intelligent action silences resistance

All organisational life is interest based, and we must evaluate all aspects of functioning with this in mind. In many respects, it is the practitioner’s responsibility to define the realities of others and to persuade members to enact those realities. This may seem undemocratic. However, it is sensible for a practitioner operating in a bureaucratic environment to identify and dismantle illegitimate and unjustified systems of bureaucratic forms of power. In the process, the practitioner pulls the crucial strings that create valuable changes at the margin. Consider also that new solutions tend to create the basis for new problems; as a practitioner, recording new potential solutions to problems that may surface is a good habit to enact. This is an important strategy in preparing for unintended consequences.

About the author

T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.


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