Discover more from The Iceberg - Mike Drayton
The Hidden Side of Diversity:
Lessons from Alison Rose's Depatrure from NatWest
Here is a second newsletter! It’s an article I wrote on Linkedin. It’s topical and so I thought it would be a shame not to send it out. You wait ages for a Substack, and then two come along at once!
Alison Rose, CEO of one of Britain's most prominent banks, NatWest resigned in the early hours of this morning, bringing to an end a career spanning over thirty years. Her departure was triggered by a high-profile incident involving the closure of Nigel Farage's bank account, but there's more to the story than meets the eye. It offers us an opportunity to reflect upon what diversity and inclusion truly means in today's corporate world.
Throughout her tenure, Alison championed a cut down version of diversity and inclusion, focussing on physical and the protected characteristics but seemed less inclined towards cognitive diversity. Those holding views different from hers or deviating from the prevailing culture of NatWest were excluded rather than included. Perhaps if there is an element of groupthink in the board and senior leadership team at NatWest? With leaders unconsciously recruiting people with views similar to themselves. A management team getting caught up in a spiral of confirmation bias. Constantly reinforcing the prevailing view as being the only correct one.
Did Alison Rose's creation of an echo chamber at Coutts, filled with like-minded people, allow her to make high risk decisions without challenge from her SLT or board? She appoints people like herself (as we are all prone to do), people who agree with her. They in turn appoint people who also reflect their views. Before you know it, the organisation becomes an echo chamber. People are breathing each other’s exhaust. This gives those at the top a feeling of invulnerability; they feel safe, right and virtuous.
The events surrounding Alison Rose’s resignation illustrate the dangers of the superficial and unreflective promotion of D&I policies.
Diversity and inclusion extend far beyond physical attributes or protected characteristics. An essential, yet usually overlooked, aspect is cognitive diversity: the variation in how individuals perceive, process, and interpret information based on their backgrounds, experiences, skills, and thought processes.
The real power of diversity unfolds when these distinct perspectives come together, fostering innovation and shielding against groupthink.
The case of Farage's account closure exposes this blind spot in Rose's leadership. Farage, and the political views he represented (and no doubt held by many of NatWest’s customers and staff) were deemed incompatible with the values NatWest espoused. However, by sidelining Farage due to his beliefs, NatWest rejected a commitment to real diversity and inclusion by excluding the cognitive diversity that Farage’s views represent.
Cognitive diversity's significance in driving innovation and growth is prominent in business literature. Research cited in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article shows that cognitively diverse teams solve problems more swiftly than teams of cognitively similar individuals. For an excellent review of the literature on cognitive diversity, take a look at Matthew Syed’s, excellent book, ‘Rebel Ideas.’
The events at NatWest show that true diversity isn't about creating an illusion of inclusivity while subtly excluding people who see the world differently to you and that's the opposite of a striving for a diverse and inclusive culture.