'Shall We Call A Cab?'... Is Your Business Like a Boring Dinner Party?

 Dinner at Haddo House 1884 by Alfred Edward Emslie - National Portrait Gallery, London

Dinner at Haddo House 1884 by Alfred Edward Emslie - National Portrait Gallery, London

Oh no! We’re talking about kitchen islands. We’ve already covered the kids’ exam results and university options. We’ve considered Uber and Strava, Nutribullets and Fitbits. We’ve discussed cycling and ski holidays, quinoa and kale. We’ve conferred on Bake Off and box sets, beards, bins and back pain. We’ve added a little Remoaning and a dash of Trumpophobia. And the blokes have had a furtive chat about craft ale and Arsenal. Yes, that’s it. We’re right in the middle of a Boring Dinner Party.

It’s a shame because it all promised so much. Such a compelling line-up of smart, charming people; such thoughtful hosts, fine food and considered wine selection. We were really looking forward to it… Ah…Now we’re onto wi-fi reception. I guess there’s nothing else for it. I’ll catch her eyes across the table, give her that look: ‘Shall we call a cab?’

I imagine we’ve all found ourselves at our own version of the Boring Dinner Party. And I confess I’m as conversationally culpable as the next person. So what is it that makes some events collectively dull, when the people in them are individually interesting?

Of course, we are instinctively drawn to people with similar backgrounds, experiences, politics and personalities. We surround ourselves with likeable, like-minded folk, who love the same things and laugh at the same jokes. And we invite each other round for dinner.

But there can be something unfulfilling about this. The more we get to know each other, the more we find ourselves agreeing, reinforcing each other’s world views. We learn to avoid certain topics, to dance round sensitive subjects. We recite the same anecdotes, rehearse the same gambits, explore the same conversational themes. Our nostalgic stories become communal glue, tribal touchstones. And it can all get a little familiar, a little cosy and unchallenging; frankly a bit boring.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much in our personal lives. But what if we’re behaving similarly in our professional lives too? What if, without much thinking about it, we find ourselves fishing in the same ponds for talent, rewarding the same outlooks in our colleagues, promoting the same character types in our leaders? What if we instinctively value the professional experiences, qualities and perspectives that we have ourselves? What if ours is just a company of People Like Us?

There is, of course, considerable worth in corporate coherence. The business that functions as a properly integrated and aligned team can deliver a more consistent service; it can be more disciplined; more at ease with itself.

But the risk with running our businesses like our dinner parties is that we begin to create corporate echo chambers: organisations that repeatedly support the same sentiments, confirm the same conventions and reinforce the same rules.

And in a world where transformation and interdependence are the ever-present imperatives, the corporate monoculture is competitively constrained. Because it’s uncomfortable with the new and awkward with the other. It’s instinctively conservative. (As Mao Tse Tung said: ‘A revolution is not a dinner party.’) By contrast the business that boasts diverse skillsets and disparate personalities is naturally better equipped for change and partnership. Difference respects and creates difference.

I wonder if we have become too good at cultural coherence; too committed to our bonding exercises, corporate awaydays and informal drink events. We imagine these initiatives are generating shared values and fellowship. But what if they’re making our company culture, not harmonious, but monotonous?

Of course, every leader nowadays celebrates the concept of diversity. Yet perhaps the biggest barrier to diversity in practice is our leaders’ own mental homogeneity. I’m sure most of us would deny that we suffer from unconscious bias. But I guess the thing about unconscious bias is that it’s unconscious.

No one wants to go to a Boring Dinner Party. And not too many people want to work in, or with, a boring business. Workplace diversity is not just a moral imperative; it’s a commercial one too… I’ll get the coats.

I  wrote this piece for the excellent social enterprise, The International Exchange. TIE connects talent in the communications industry with social initiatives around the world; thereby delivering creativity for good and developing the communications leaders of the future. Visit the TIE website to find out more.

No. 105