More than a century ago, when India was still under its rule, the British government became so concerned about the number of deaths caused by cobra bites in Delhi that it offered a bounty for every dead cobra turned into city officials.

The government’s aim – so the anecdote has it – was to make the city safer for everyone living there.

Ignoring for a moment the ethical questions that might justifiably be asked about the indiscriminate culling of any animal, and accepting that the world was a very different place then than it is now, the initiative was an unqualified success as scores of dead snakes were presented at government offices.

Eventually, though, the law of unintended consequences kicked in as unscrupulous entrepreneurs, spying an easy opportunity to change their financial fortunes, began breeding the snakes for slaughter in order claim the bounty.

The Cobra Effect, as it is now known, is also a good example of Newton’s Third Law: every action in nature has an opposite and equal reaction. (Maybe we can debate whether or not the reaction was exactly equal, but let’s not start splitting hairs yet.)

This is true of everything in life – from economics and politics to entertainment and sport and I’ve increasingly begun to see that truth in the work I do around Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) as well.

It took a long time for EDI – or any notion of diversity – to finally elbow its way onto the agenda of global businesses. But when it did, and when I began working in EDI 8 years ago, the organisations I spoke to knew EDI was challenging but important, and they were excited to do it.

That should have been – and was – good news. Music to the ears, in fact, of anyone who, like me, was working in the inclusion and diversity (I&D) space.

And for about eight years, until late in 2019, it felt like the workplaces of the UK were finally making progress in the fight to turn the dream of making every employee feel a sense of belonging in the workplace into a reality.

So, what’s changed? The sense of importance around the work that needs to be done is still the same. Most businesses that want to be successful still see EDI as a vital part of the work they do.

The difference now is that they’re no longer excited to do it.

Instead, they’re afraid.

And if we’re being totally honest, they have good reason to be nervous in being vocal about their commitment to delivering EDI work that will change the way everybody feels about being at work.

Because belonging has become weaponised, and that weaponisation – which has turned language and action around EDI at work into a cultural tinderbox – has bred a culture of silence, subservience and obedience in many organisations.

What does this weaponisation look like at work?

  • rigidity and an unwillingness to talk through and discuss different approaches to EDI
  • being dogmatic and irrational, instead of pragmatic, rational and *whispers* commercial
  • vilifying people for ‘daring’ to ask questions about EDI, pushing those questions into the shadows
  • paternalistically and patronisingly assuming that all people from marglinalised/under-represented groups see themselves as victims
  • aggressively policing people’s language rather than coming together to create a shared language that supports growth and evolves with time, and that recognises different words mean different things to different people (which can be impact by nationality, culture, age, you name it…)
  • conversations being shut down with shouts of ‘this is just political correctness’, ‘this is mad woke ideology’
  • ignoring people’s unintentional mistakes rather than talking about and learning from them, for example when microaggressions occur
  • demonising people over unintentional mistakes and excluding them rather than seeking to understand and remedy what caused the issue
  • shaming people for not having the same enthusiasm for all EDI subjects, rather than understanding that we’re all being driven by our unique priorities and worries
  • using guilt to get people to agree to the need for change

Many think this happened because of the nature and style of communication we now see online. Brash statements, soundbites that don’t allow for nuance, stating an opinion and not engaging in any conversation. (Disclaimer: this is not to say we should be engaging with people who are clearly being discriminatory towards us.)

We don’t have to look far to see instances of cancel culture. It’s rife in the media and on social media, and it’s spilling into the workplace – with the result that fear silences the challenging conversations we need to have in order to educate and foster change.

(Plenty argue that people are rightly losing opportunities because the providers, customers or users of these platforms disagree with their views. But this isn’t about the Jeremy Clarksons losing TV contracts. This issue also includes people who have said things in the past and being dragged through the mud years, sometimes decades later. And when we, as a society, start revelling in this sort of public stoning, is it that much of a stretch to see how people might worry about expressing their views, any views at work? Also, can we all swear that we are squeaky clean? That none of us has ever done something that we’d never want colleagues to know about?)

So, where we should be fostering helpful, supportive and educative conversations in safe, blame-free spaces, we’re instead seeing polarisation.

People are afraid of saying the wrong thing, of hurting or disagreeing with colleagues, and of being ostracised or shut down for having different views.

Just how big is the problem?

This is a huge problem because EDI is fundamentally about conversations and connections and we can’t build these connections and drive positive change if people are too afraid to talk to each other.

And, for starters, it’s not just showing up in a few areas of diversity, for example conversations about sexism, ableism or racism at work. Neither is it affecting just one side of the political spectrum. It exists in education, in sport, in social values, in health, in … well, everything.

‘Belonging’ at work is amorphous. It has no clearly defined shape, no hard and fast parameters. How I define the way in which I belong will differ to how someone else does. Our lived experiences may share some common themes, but they are no less unique for that.

It’s because belonging has no universal form that it’s easy to weaponise.

Just like with the Cobra Effect, this is not something we planned or ever thought would happen. And none of this is part of a healthy company culture where psychological safety exists. So if we are to make any sort of meaningful progress around workplace EDI then we need to begin the process of de-weaponising the agenda and encouraging a truce under which we can all learn.

In part two of this article, I’ll be unpacking the steps we need to take to reclaim control of the EDI roadmap, and outlining how getting specialist EDI support from consultancies like ours can help businesses to make rapid progress in effecting change.