Research shows that gender diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to outperform their competitors.
Ethnically diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to outperform their competitors.
This issue of diversity came to mind recently on attending a National Chartered Symposium event at the end of January. We were tasked with capturing filmed interviews with as many and as broad a range of chartered financial planners as possible. (If any of you are reading now, thanks very much for helping out.)
One of the things that struck me as I scanned the room of close to 1,000 attendees was how overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged the group was.
Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with being any of those things.
However, as I lined up two women and a black man in his mid-twenties, I acknowledged to myself how ridiculous it was that I saw this 'diverse' line-up as a major coup.
In fact, this 'diversity' is not reflective of the advice profession. Here lies the problem.
The profession and the wider financial services industry do not reflect the great diversity of the UK. The differences in age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education and socio-economic background of your potential audience should be acknowledged.
It must be reflected in our sector. But it isn’t.
As a result, huge swathes of the population see advice and financial planning as somewhat irrelevant to them. And this is rooted in science.
The oldest part of the brain is the amygdala, which sits just on top of the spine.
It's here that we make snap judgements on the people that we meet. It’s an unconscious decision, based on what we see and hear from that person. There are four categories that this part of the brain will put the other person into based on that data:
3) Potential sexual partner
This data determines whether we will approach or retreat from that person - or remain completely indifferent.
That snap judgement is then supported by data from our neo-cortex, the part of the brain responsible for language and analysis.
However hard you might try to build trust, it’s extremely hard to break down someone’s initial response to you.
Research from behavioural psychologist Mark Bowden says we are pre-programmed to be indifferent. Once that snap judgement has been made, we switch off and stop listening.
Just looking at the visual make-up of the industry, and the tone of voice that prevails at the many of the events we’ve attended, I’ve a hunch that much of the population is entirely indifferent to the financial services industry.
Now, we work hard to ensure that financial planners connect with audiences in a way that is human, intimate, authentic to themselves, and relatable. This work is so important when looking to build trust.
Yet there is only so far this work can take you.
If being authentic is still white, middle class, middle-aged and male for the vast majority of the profession (again, nothing wrong with being any of those things), you’ll struggle to break down the indifference among much of the population that are not any of these things.
Looking at the four categories above, if you want to be placed in the 'friend' category, your clients and potential clients are looking for someone like them. Is this adviser one of my tribe? They want to see some of themselves reflected in you. This is entirely based in evolutionary behavioural psychology.
It’s not about asking financial planners to shift, to morph their accents and body language in order to imitate the client in question, hoping they’ll be your 'friend'.
That would be ridiculous and, very likely, offensive.
There’s a simpler, far more authentic way of moving towards a better reflection of a diverse society.
We believe the answer lies in building a profession that reflects the cultural diversity around us.
This means allowing yourself and your colleagues to be entirely authentic in the way you communicate with clients.
There’s no need to conform to any imagined adviser conventions in terms of tone of voice, body language and behaviour.
If there is a convention (and there shouldn’t be), there can be a tendency towards being a bit dull and stilted, with advisers looking, sounding and feeling like they are pulling back from their instincts.
People want to see themselves reflected back to them. They want a profession that 'gets them'.
Of course, you can’t change the make-up of the profession by yourself overnight. But that doesn’t equate to: “I'll just leave it then. It’s too big a problem.” We can make a huge difference if we commit to incremental changes.
So, what can we do?
Acknowledge the problem - The challenge with unconscious bias is that it’s unconscious. By becoming conscious of it, we have the power to change it.
Don’t get defensive - Rather than defending the status quo, our energy is better spent listening openly and gaining a better understanding in order to progress.
Take action - Where you see prejudice or bias in yourself or in others, take whatever steps you can to counter it. All of our small contributions can add up to a big change over time.
Be yourself - Commit to expressing yourself as authentically as possible. Role-playing or conforming to conventions also massively reduces diversity. Even within the rather narrow cross-section of society that is currently represented, there is definitely room for far more nuance and personality that comes with people being themselves.
The more the advice profession and the financial services industry reflects the huge sweep of diversity in the UK, the more society will see you as a 'friend' or someone to be trusted, rather than an irrelevance, or worse, a potential 'enemy'.