Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.
– Malcom Forbes
The word diversity is coming up in conversation topics increasingly often around the workplace. Depending on where you are in the world, there are societal and historic issues at the heart of the conversation.
Here in the US, there is a long history of racism, segregation, and marginalization of minorities. The conversation revolves around the need to increase diversity both because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s increasingly becoming clear that it’s also beneficial. What better way to instill change than to align diversity with a company’s bottom line. Yet, change is still slow to come.
To me, the benefits of diversity are obvious.
However, when a client wrote in to ask me how to explain the benefits of diversity to someone else best. I was stuck. The benefits of diversity are so obvious to me, so natural that I wasn’t sure how I would explain it to someone who didn’t already have the same view.
It’s funny or ironic because we face the same challenge daily trying to explain our own culture to someone else.
What we grew up doing feels so natural, we are often unaware of it, let alone being able to explain it. As famed researcher Hammermich said, fish can’t see water.
So what is diversity?
The dictionary says it’s the state of being diverse; to have variety.
Some of it is obvious, people who look different than us, with different skin tone, clothes, accents. There are also those from different genders or age.
Other forms of diversity are less obvious: difference in life experience, upbringing environment, personality, education, values, and attitudes.
I once met a Hungarian man in a small town in Hungary. He was a friend of my cousin. Somebody could have mistaken us for brothers. Although we’re both born in Hungary and of about the same age, our “culture” couldn’t have been more different. He’s never left his hometown, only visited Austria and was a skilled plumber. I grew up in three countries in as many continents and became an entrepreneur. We could both dress up in a suit and sit in a boardroom, and no one could tell the stark cultural differences that exist between us.
Diversity is having people in the same group who bring these different points of view, experiences. It also means creating an environment and a culture where everyone feels comfortable bringing their whole self – that they are fully engaged.
Why is it a hot topic
Humans have evolved to become social creatures. We were not the fastest or the stronger animals and were not yet rules of the animal kingdom. What we lacked in pure strength, we made up by creating groups, working together, and using our mind to increase the odds of survival.
Part of this evolution was differentiating between in-groups and out-groups. It was vital to distinguish friends from foes; recognize those that would help us survive by sharing the limited resources and keep away the others.
This mentality, unfortunately, created situations around the world where dominant groups hold power, privilege, and influence. This discrimination gets deeply ingrained in institutions, society and culture.
There has been a growing awareness of these inequalities and how unfair they are. Some people were born into the wrong race, gender or part of town and who need to work 2, 3, or 10 times harder to get the same opportunities as some others, if at all.
In some parts of the world, there is very little social mobility. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard-working you may be; it’s where you were born in a society that defines what you can be.
Social media and modern communication technologies have helped empower and mobilize these minority groups and shed light on these realities for everyone to see.
Benefits of diversity
Dismantling these archaic societal systems is the right thing to do. But there is another benefit to doing this.
Diversity has been showing time and time again to be very beneficial for the organization that chooses to promote it and create truly inclusive environments.
Why is this?
“We are the sum of our experiences.”
Just as we saw in the types of diversity, all the different experiences we go through given where we are born, how we grow up and the various cultures we bathe in, provides us with different perspectives and world-views.
These differences mean that when we approach a problem or challenge or task at work, we will approach it from a slightly different angle. On the simplest level, this means that we try different solutions to solve a problem increasing the odds that one of them will be the right one.
When you take this to another level, where you have an inclusive culture where everyone is happy and feel comfortable to bring their whole self and share their thoughts, you get powerful collaboration and teamwork. One person can build on someone else’s ideas. Two people can exchange and disagree with one another respectfully resulting in revolutionary new ideas that no one would have come up with by themselves. Where there is a space where everyone knows there is a space for them, whether they are introverted or extroverted, shy or outgoing, man or woman, or anywhere on the LGBTQA+ spectrum.
It’s not enough to have diversity in the room. The culture of the organization must be inclusive so everyone can feel like they belong; they can be themselves and be fully engaged
So what’s the first step to take advantage of these benefits? The leadership needs to be on board, starting at the top of the organization. There needs to be a strong display of commitment by modeling the right culture, clarity about what is acceptable and what is not, and no tolerance for the latter. It’s not an easy process, and old habits die hard, but the benefits far outweigh the cost.
So what are good examples to illustrate the benefits of diversity?
One example I like to share is food. I’m so grateful that Lebanese, French, Indian, Thai and all the other wonderful cuisines exist. Then you have fusion cuisine. That’s a whole new level of deliciousness. This is diversity in all the glorious flavors waiting for you to enjoy it.
When a Thai chef who grew up in France, combining her family’s traditional recipes with French influence, she will create dishes and flavors that no Thai or French may have thought about. If she then moves to Colombia, she has more unique ideas and new ways to combine Colombian, Thai, and French influences. I can tell you that I’d want to be on the guest-list when her restaurant opens in Zona T in Bogota.
While I love the cuisines above, I hate blue cheese, and I believe that mixing mint and chocolate should be a crime. Meanwhile, I also recognize that others feel differently. I accept that someone can love both mind chocolate and blue cheese and I wouldn’t think any less of them.
Different ingredients from around the world that can be used and combined in an infinite variety of ways. The same way, individuals from different races, ethnic groups, gender, and experience coming together can be more creative and innovative in whatever they are working on.
Show me the Numbers!
For those less gastronomically inclined, there is another way to look at the benefits of diversity: numbers.
Ethnically diverse teams are 35% more likely to outperform peers.- McKenzie Research
Organizations with women on their board outperform their peers – Catalyst Research.
Inclusive teams outperform their peers by 80% in team-based assessments – Deloitte Australia
Sounds promising, right? It’s crucial to remember that it’s not enough to hire a few people from minorities. Though it may check a box for the head of HR, if members of minority groups do not feel included in the team or the organization, it’s as if they weren’t there when it comes to the benefits of diversity.
Start a conversation
When someone asks you about diversity, you can share these examples and statistics above. I’d be happy to help you get buy-in from your leadership, just reach out.
Let these examples be a starting point for discussions about where your organization is and where you want it to be and how you want to be seen in the world. Look at ideas and conversations like seeds to be planted in someone’s mind and revisit the topics regularly. It takes a little time for people to shift their worldview.
There are some great questions for self-reflection or discussion within the leadership and teams.
- How does your teams, leadership, or board look like?
- Which colleagues are your favorites? Who do you get along with the most? Do they look like you or not?
- Who do you greet when you enter the office?
- Who do you turn to for specific needs or questions? Is it based on facts or bias?
- What personal experience have you had with diversity, good or bad?
- Where do you or your company want to be in 5 years? Ten years?
What has been your experience helping your organization embrace diversity? What are your examples or questions that worked well? Please share in the comments.