6 Making the most of diverse identities
We can now propose some ways in which voluntary organisations can make the most of the diverse identities housed within them and beyond them.
- Allowing time and space for people to express themselves. This sounds somewhat obvious, but it is easy to get caught up in the busy environment of everyday organisational life. If people aren’t given opportunities to express themselves, then often their valuable perspectives and life experiences may not even become known about in the first place. Of course, tasks in organisations need to be completed, but allowing time and space for informal conversation is important too, whether at a regular communal tea or a more structured idea sharing session.
- Introducing some collective decision-making. Some organisational managers will say that they consult staff or stress the importance of communicating decisions to staff and volunteers. These are all minimalist approaches, with a strong hierarchy still directing decisions: the agenda, and often the substantive decision, is already framed in advance. You cannot really refer to this way of working as particularly democratic, as almost all of the power still resides with top management.
- Introducing a more participative approach to discussion and decisions. Such approaches are often referred to as deliberative practices. They allow people the opportunity to come together to shape how an issue is perceived and how it should be tackled. Deliberative democrats emphasise the need for rational debate based on strong, balanced evidence. Important in this approach is a measure of good faith: that a process is being used genuinely in order to gain the best possible decision, rather than being used to further someone’s existing opinion or interests. This is a hard request to make of people and whether or not genuine good faith is ever truly achieved is questionable. Perhaps the challenge is to become better at identifying examples of good and bad faith in practice.
- Paying attention to silence: some people are less comfortable than others at speaking up in public forums, which is perfectly natural. Yet it should be a matter of concern when some people are routinely silent. Not everyone is comfortable speaking in meetings and these people need to be approached for their views in less formal contexts. Likewise, some organisational functions are valued more than others within organisations. Meetings can be dominated by a particular function at the expense of others, so it is worth thinking about whether all aspects of an organisation are being offered the time and space they need for expression.
- Avoiding being dominated by functional thinking: the functions of organisations are usually expert-led, but just because one person has spent years doing a certain type of work, does not mean others in the organisation might not have some valuable perspectives to share. In fact, very often hearing from someone outside a particular function can inject an important fresh perspective.
The key point with all of these approaches is that they can help you see beyond the boundaries of the identities you establish for yourself and your organisation: their aim is to put together a range of perspectives in order to generate something new.
Activity 2 Seeking out difference
Building on your insights in this week’s learning journal, spend 15 minutes thinking about someone either in your organisation, your community or another organisation that you think offers a very different perspective on an issue you think your organisation could help to address. Ask that person for their view, emphasising that they can help stretch your thinking and enrich your perspective as a practitioner. Spend a further 20 minutes writing about your experience in the discussion forum. Then spend 5 minutes commenting on the posts of two other learners.
Engaging with people at the level of identity necessarily means that you are exploring issues and ideas in ways that exceed the everyday activity and detail of an organisation. You come together with an ethos of openness and generosity. You should also share a critical commitment to probe the limits of one another’s identities. Exploring the world in this way provides the foundations for a successful collaborative leadership endeavour, one that engages with important values and issues, rather than something far more instrumental.
Developing a bicameral orientation to identity is an important reflective practice. It means maintaining a strong commitment to your own identity but also recognising that identity is rooted in difference and so is also only a partial account of the world. Being bicameral therefore means that you stay open to the possibilities and learning of others: you operate at a level of generosity towards others and their identities. It means seeking out opportunities to learn from others – people from other faiths, other ideologies, other professions, other organisations. Engaging with someone at the level of identity means that you begin to explore issues and problems at a deep and sophisticated level; you begin to appreciate new possibilities, while also developing a deeper appreciation and understanding of your own commitments.