Diversity and Inclusion: applying ancient wisdom to shift mindsets for more sustainable outcomes

Diversity and Inclusion: applying ancient wisdom to shift mindsets for more sustainable outcomes

Start to challenge your assumptions by asking yourself five questions.

By Ms Fleur Heyworth, Head of Gender and Inclusive Security

Fleur Heyworth is Head of Gender and Inclusive Security at the GCSP. On 1 - 31 March, she is co-facilitating an online learning journey, “Leverage Diversity to Increase Performance”, with Miriam Fugfugosh. She explains why the strategic tool of “polarities”, a key tool in the Geneva Leadership Alliance portfolio will enable participants to lead diversity and inclusion more effectively.


Leveraging diversity Editorial

What do you see in the image? It was first produced in Fliegende Blätter, a satirical German magazine (Oct. 23, 1892, p. 147) and has since been used by pyschologists and philosophers to explore the workings of the mind. It is described as a paradoxical image because two different images can be seen at the same time.     

How often are we able to see and work with two interrelated and yet apparently contradictory images, concepts or tensions at the same time? Dealing with and leading tensions are something that we as humans tend to be uncomfortable with. Many of us have been brought up to try to identify and analyse problems, and then find ways to solve them. “Theories of change” aim to take a group or organisation from a given state to a better state. But is this actually an effective strategy that is sustainable over time, and does it in fact reflect the reality?

Take, for example, organisational transformation strategies designed to improve the way an organisation works and make it “fit” to meet the challenges of our VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguity) world. How many transformation strategies meet resistance, challenge the core culture or expertise of an organisation and forget lessons from the past resulting in failure or inefficiency? In polarity thinking, the strategy will recognise that transformation is in fact in tension with continuity, and we need to do both for enduring success.

In many human relationships and systems, the phenomenon of polarities, also known as paradoxes, contradictions, dilemmas or wicked problems, exist. They have been recognised since ancient time: within Taoism, one finds yin and yang; Hinduism embraces the masculine and feminine; Christianity espouses justice and mercy; and Martin Luther King advocated both power and love.

Polarities are not always a “comfortable truth”; our own values, fears and cognitive bias can orientate us to one side of a pole, make us defensive in regards to it, thus leading to conflict. In addition, as our environment becomes more complex or VUCA, it can be harder to see and lead polarities. However, if we ignore them, we do so at our peril: applying a “problem-solving mindset” can actually make the situation worse rather than better, creating a vicious cycle of negative energy in which we experience the downsides of tension and conflict

However, if we can see, map and leverage polarities, we can create win-win situations. While this phenomenon has its roots in ancient wisdom, Barry Johnson has spent around 30 years researching it and developing it to make it strategically useful. Polarity thinking is now recognised as a top strategic tool by the Centre for Creative Leadership and the Harvard Business Review. The phenomenon operates at individual, team, organisational and societal levels and many polarities exist within diversity and inclusion strategies.

I am really excited to be able to bring this mindset and tool to advance diversity and inclusion, which entail an interrelated set of tensions that have a significant impact on a team’s performance. A polarity mindset can dramatically alter the way we consult within our organisations to see both sides of the coin and develop a culture that can be sustained over time and across boundaries Here are some questions to reflect on in preparation for the workshop on 17th March:

  1. Do you see a tension between equity and equality?
  2. Are you able to create an environment that nurtures participation and invites conflict?
  3. Are you able to support your people to thrive and drive performance?
  4. Is your inclusion strategy also creating healthy exclusion?
  5. Do you have a strong core culture that also welcomes new ideas?

We hope you can join us on the 17th March to develop your ability to “see, map and leverage” polarities, and share strategies with fellow practitioners and experts to lead them more effectively.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Fleur Heyworth leads the GCSP's executive education, dialogue and policy analysis on gender and inclusive security.  Working closely with the Geneva Leadership Alliance, she designs and facilitates courses on leadership for women, and for male and female leaders to create more inclusive working environments.  She also delivers modules on gender and inclusive security to the multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural participants on GCSP's core courses, incorporating the frameworks of the Women Peace and Security Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Goals.