Urban Equity blogs

Deconstructing Virtue Signalling in the Lens of Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging: A Leadership Imperative

6 January 2024 by André Darmanin0

In the vibrant landscape of modern business where paradigm shifts are increasingly becoming the norm, one such shift is the focus on Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EIB). Organizations are realizing that implementing EIB is not only ethically right but also strategically sound. Amid this transformation, it’s essential to explore a concept known as ‘virtue signalling’ and understand its implications for organizational culture and EIB programs.

Virtue Signalling and its Nuances

The Oxford Dictionary definition of virtue signalling is:

The action or practice of expressing one’s views or acting in a way thought to be motivated primarily by a wish to exhibit good character, social conscience, political convictions, etc., or to garner recognition and approval.

Journalist James Bartholomew coined the term ‘virtue signalling’ to depict the public demonstration of moral values. Interestingly, this act often serves the purpose of winning approval or endorsements more than it does promote the cause itself. This is distinctive from ‘moral grandstanding’, another term used for the apparent display of moral values primarily intended for self-promotion. In the EIB narrative, these notions become especially important as virtue signalling could risk trivializing or marginalizing the EIB movement.

If you are wondering why people virtue-signal, the answer lies in humanity’s evolutionary history. Humans, as social creatures, have an innate propensity to seek approval, enhance reputation, and solidify social bonds. This tendency is not inherently negative but can have extensive repercussions in the delicate balance of practicality and morality that leaders often handle.

Virtue Signalling in Organizational Decision-Making

You might question whether such a seemingly innocuous human tendency indeed impacts organizations. In reality, virtue signalling can significantly influence organizational decision-making and EIB policy formulation, sometimes leading to decisions that spark controversies. Let’s glance at some real-world instances to understand this better.

The controversy around Aviva CEO’s directive for stringent scrutiny of potential white male recruits provides a compelling example of how virtue signalling can create fairness and equality issues. This decision not only started a maelstrom of debates but also led to diverse perspectives and responses from business leaders such as Sergio Panday to the tweet from Elon Musk calling for ‘DEI to die’.

Moreover, when organizations seemingly retreat from such positions, as seen in the example of ASOS scrapping its diversity targets, it can lead to a loss in trust and potential harm to the broader industry.

Reorienting the View on EIB

Leaders must reaffirm that these instances are not a denial of the importance of DEI or EIB. Instead, they invite us to re-envision how we perceive and implement EIB. The primary lesson is not abandoning EIB initiatives, but rather embodying them more authentically and courageously.

In order to avoid falling into the trap of virtue signalling, there’s a need to transcend the mere optics of EIB, as mentioned in a 2020 episode of No Stupid Questions with Angela Duckworth and Steven Dubner.

Furthermore. transparent, objective leadership coupled with strategic pragmatism can help navigate the complex terrain of virtue and virtue signalling according to Jordan and Rand in a 2019 article in The New York Times.

Realizing EIB through this renewed perspective would entail setting realistic and attainable diversity and inclusion targets. Moreover, it would involve re-engineering talent acquisition and promotion processes, striving to base these crucial decisions on factors such as merit and potential, rather than mere window dressing for diversity. It also requires fostering a culture that encourages openness, mutual respect, and continuous learning.

Virtue Signalling and its Influence on Workforce Perspective

Organizational leaders also need to pay attention to how virtue signalling and the subsequent mistrust can modulate employees’ perceptions and their connection with the organization’s EIB policies.

When employees perceive virtue signalling, they may question the authenticity of leaders and EIB policies, leading to pessimism and skepticism. It might also result in employees questioning the fairness of processes, the credibility of leadership decisions, and overall organizational integrity. Moreover, investigating how different employee groups perceive and experience EIB is essential to execute effective and inclusive organizational practices.

From Virtue Signalling to Genuine Virtue

Diverse explorations into virtue signalling consistently lead us back to the same conclusion – virtue signalling may sound benign and even beneficial, but it is far from the genuine virtue that EIB initiatives need.

We hope this exploration has urged you, as leaders, to reflect, critique and possibly redirect EIB initiatives within your influence. The objective is to transform EIB from a peripheral theme mostly used for public relations or ticking some boxes, into a central, actionable strategy that can enhance organizational functionality and social sustainability.

The call to action necessitates that leaders step out from the comfort of virtue signalling and bravely embark on the challenging journey of fostering genuine virtue. The very soul of EIB depends on it.

Learn how the team at Urban Equity Consulting can engage in meaningful and dynamic conversations and share your insights, experiences, and thoughts on strategic EIB development and implementation.  Our team will discuss about the perils of virtue signalling, and how you as an organization can avoid such gaps while ensuring genuine and purposeful equity, inclusion and belonging.

Remember, this is not just sharing of things we already know or believe, but coming together to learn and broaden our understanding of ways to make our workplaces fair, inclusive, and prosperous. It’s about turning insights into actions that truly embody the spirit of EIB.

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