Leading diversity

As the leader of a workforce or team, in most contexts your team will be diverse. And, further to that, much more diverse than it would have been twenty years ago. As social, global and gender mobility have increased, the make-up of the workforce has changed, and is likely to continue to change. Our teams are, on average, more diverse in terms of gender, race, cognitive and physical ability, parental status, cultural background and schooling, and that’s just some of the factors. When we talk about diversity in the workplace, we’re talking about any measurable dimension that can be used to differentiate people and groups from one another.

Research increasingly shows that diverse teams make better decisions in a range of ways. Firstly, they’re less likely to fall prey to the dangers of groupthink (where everyone huddles around one opinion and contrary voices don’t speak out through fear or inertia). Secondly, they are less likely to have ‘blindspots’, because more demographic angles and viewpoints are covered and so their actions generally expose companies to less risk. Finally, they’re likely to be more innovative, because ideas come from a much wider ranging group of people who draw their inspiration from a wider range of sources.

But sometimes, as a leader, this diversity can feel daunting. As humans, evolution and genetics have programmed us to have an ‘affinity bias’, meaning we tend to connect more readily with those who are similar to us. So if we are surrounded by people who look, act and think differently to us, and to one another, it can be quite challenging to think about building a team that works well together, that thrives on difference, and that achieves results. Misunderstandings can happen more frequently. Sub-groups can develop, and this in turn can create silos, and worse, in-fighting. But the evidence shows that, if leaders invest effort into making such teams work, they will reap the rewards. So, what should leaders do?

Make the business case for diversity clear:

The evidence is strong that diverse teams work (see above). If people want to be part of an excellent, successful team, then diversity – correctly managed and led – will help them to achieve this. If they can see that their acceptance of being part of a diverse team is essential to their success, then this may help to move the dial on the amount of effort that they put in to making things work.

Encourage a dialogue about difference:

  • Everyone is different and everyone is the same. Encouraging teams to talk about their similarities and differences can be very beneficial. Rather than encouraging ‘colour-blindness’, for example, companies should promote multiculturalism and the advantages it can bring. ‘Cultural brokers’ – team members who have considerably more experience working multiculturally – can help with this. They can either act as a bridge between two or more cultures that they understand, or if they are from outside the cultures in question, they can draw on their experiences of overcoming multicultural barriers to help others to do the same. These don’t have to be country cultures; they can be industry cultures, departmental cultures, or any other cultural divide, too.
  • As a leader, you can model successful approaches to embracing diversity. Have these conversations with others, publicly and sensitively. Bravely and honestly talk about yourself, and others, and encourage reflection. You will be showing the way in an area which is very difficult to make progress on.

Increase diversity and inclusion awareness

Firms are increasingly launching diversity and inclusion programmes, but all too often no one outside HR is clear what the programme involves, how it works, and how it might help the organisation. A diversity and inclusion programme might include:

  • Using recruitment techniques which ensure that job adverts are seen by a wide pool of people;
  • That a wide pool of people apply; and that the right measures are used to check that someone will be good at the job rather than relying on ‘lazy’ rules of thumb such as having been to the ‘right’ university or having achieved high grades at A Level (slightly lower grades from a less good school may be more impressive than all top grades from a high-achieving school, for example).
  • Once people are in the company, making sure that their circumstances are, where at all possible, taken into account with regard to appraisal and reward.
  • It could also include de-biasing training, cultural awareness training, and setting up diversity networks.
  • A few years ago, I worked with KPMG to help them develop leadership skills in their diversity networks so that these sub-groups in the firm (for example, their Carers group; their Working Parents Group; their French heritage group) could drive forward initiatives, ask for what they needed, and support the firm’s goals. Being aware that these actions can all be a part of diversity and inclusion initiatives, and plenty of other actions besides, can help employees to embrace their own uniqueness and that of others.

Work on interrupting (rather than eliminating) bias

  • De-bias training is a growing feature of organisations. Biases get in the way of decision making. The good news is that having diverse teams can reduce bias. The bad news is that our innate biases can stop us creating diverse teams in the first place. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible to rewire and change our biased brains.
  • What is easier, however, is to momentarily ‘put our hold’ on biases by using systems which raise our awareness that our biases may be about to kick in. For example, if you are just about to conduct interviews, undertaking some bias training or mindfulness, which you can do online, in the ten minutes before you go into the interview room.
  • I was recently involved with a project to design an app which would intervene at key recruitment moments with small de-biasing activities. An example of a similar project can be found here. These small, systematic actions can significantly reduce your bias for the next while. There will be a range of ways in which reducing bias will help to open up your organisation to diversity, and to listen to diverse viewpoints. It will be critical to think about where bias kicks in with your organisation’s decision making, and contemplate whether and how de-biasing may help to solve it.

Emphasise collaboration and execution in conjunction with quality leadership

  • Finally, key markers of a high quality team are that they are focused on common goals, high standards of excellence, and have a strong sense of themselves as a group. The more that you can encourage diverse teams to work together on tasks that are additive and collaborative – particularly where they have already had conversations around their similarities and differences, and perhaps where they have de-biased, too – then you will grow the sense of ‘team’ and the feeling that they are united, and so their performance will further improve. A virtuous circle of performance, if you will.

  • Team/group coaching is one way of doing this, and one that is increasing in popularity.It helps teams to find the courage and language to talk about what unites them, and what divides them, and to find ways forward. Where I’ve facilitated workshops and coaching, encouraging teams to bravely and honestly talk about their own successes and challenges, differences, similarities, and solutions, it has been massively successful. I don’t put this down to my skill alone; I put this down to the fact that teams are often ready to have these conversations and to make things work successfully, and giving time to coaching gives them the space and permission to do so.

In sum, shaping a culture, or a team, to gain the most from its diversity can be hard. Cultural changes are always notoriously challenging. But, using a combination of the methods above, you can lead your organisation or team towards a higher level of performance. Starting with your own honest engagement with issues around diversity and inclusion will show the way. Breaking down silos and promoting teamwork leads to collaboration, happier staff, and engaged staff, which leads to better output and business success, and acceptance of diversity being a good thing.


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