Waiting to be asked to dance in Cannes
Francesca Hills
26 June 2019

One of the hot topics of conversation during the opening days of Cannes this year was “who made the cut?”  No, I’m not talking about the awards short list –  but rather the list of people that each agency sends to the festival.  As the cost of attending has skyrocketed over the past few years, the number of agency attendees has plummeted.  And whilst this year you definitely saw a more diverse crowd, our industry still has some work to do. And in this respect the population of Cannes is a microcosm of the one of the broader industry challenge.

It’s been said that diversity is being asked to the party – an apt analogy for Cannes – and inclusion is being asked to dance. Here on the ground it seems that not everyone got the invitation, let alone made it to the dance floor.  Looking at the broader landscape, while the invitation has indeed been extended to many, few are dancing.  And this isn’t just an issue for people in minorities in our industry, it’s an issue for all of us. We have all been working hard on creating a more diverse workforce, but have we been doing the right thing? My view is no. And if people don’t feel included, diversity is a waste of time and talent.

In my book Brain-savvy Wo+man, we unpicked the neuroscience research on inclusion and found it’s a tricky concept to understand and even trickier to achieve. That’s because people feel included when two things are happening to them at the same time. And the two things are in some ways contradictory.

People feel included when they have a strong sense of belonging to a group and they are appreciated and encouraged to use their unique skills and abilities. We can hire for diversity of thinking, background and experience but unless we create a culture where there is inclusion, it’s a waste of time.  And a cost to individuals and the business.

As a matter of fact, it IS all in your head.

A lack of inclusion creates a sense of threat in the brain causing people to withdraw into survival mode. In this state, not only do we lack cognitive resources for problem solving, creativity and productivity, we also turn to our safe in-group, people-like-us in thinking, background and experience. On the other hand, when we feel safe, when the environment is open, transparent and welcoming of uniqueness we shift into approach mode. In this state we are creative, and open to new ideas and trying new things.

Our brain likes what is familiar so it feels uncomfortable working with people who are different, listening to the person who suggests a novel solution, welcoming someone with a different background who needs coaching on how the client thinks, or hiring someone who presents themselves in an unexpected way. But the human brain also likes novelty and when we feel safe, we can embrace uniqueness making people feel both like they belong and are appreciated.

Evolving Toward Inlcusion?

The good news is that while Cannes attendance has been discouragingly homogenous in the past, its 2019 agenda offered encouraging signs we may be making progress in evolving beyond diversity toward inclusion. A number of sessions at Cannes tackled the topic, including the Beyond session on Monday describing how they hacked themselves to maximise their creativity, diversity and create a more inclusive culture; as well as a session on how GenZ is redefining masculinity and femininity, something which personally I applaud. There were several more sessions that also went beyond the standard definition and cohorts that have traditionally dominated diversity discussions at this and every other industry event.

Creating inclusion doesn’t need to be hard. There is clear research that points to how this can be achieved and the behavioural economic nudge approach is an exciting new development that can make being more inclusive simpler if we are willing to step outside our comfort zone, feel a little uncomfortable and try something different!

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