3 Changes in Thinking to Realize the Benefits of Diversity

In Culture, Organization & Strengths

Let’s be honest for a moment. Diversity is hard, and inclusion even harder. But it’s the right thing to do, and the benefits to business are clear. As reported in a recent article by Katherine W. Phillips in Scientific American, a number of studies exploring the impact of diversity on teams and organizations found that:

  • diversity encourages diligence and open-mindedness
  • social diversity in groups inspires cognitive actions that homogeneity does not (like working harder to find common ground when disagreement occurs)
  • increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance (at innovation-focused banks in the U.S.)
  • ethnic, geographic and intellectual diversity taken together produces the strongest results with highest impact (in a study of 1.5 million scientific papers)
  • companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (net debt to equity) and better average growth

With clear results like these, why did a global study published by Deloitte University Press reveal that only one in five companies rated themselves as ready to address the issue of diversity and inclusion?

We believe it is because there are three fundamental changes in thinking that must occur first for businesses to realize these benefits:

The first is to understand that diversity is an incredibly complex concept, too often oversimplified. Diversity is frequently misconstrued as simply a black and white issue of race (pun intended). But diversity goes far beyond racial variety to include characteristics that can not be seen by the naked eye: education, ethnicity, experience, culture, socio-economic background, thinking style, beliefs, sexual orientation, and so on. There are hundreds of characteristics to consider when divining true diversity. I can put together a Benetton-like board room of people – white, black, Asian, Hispanic – and one might marvel at the diversity of the group. But if the people convened are all privileged, Harvard-educated adults who grew up in the same city,  belong to the same church, and share the same ardent political affiliation, how much diversity is really present?

The second is to be clear about what inclusion is, and what it is not. Inclusion alone is an empty virtue. If people with the same thinking, the same experiences and the same characteristics – the hypothetical board room I assembled, for example – participate in decision-making, inclusion is at work, but it is likely impotent. One signal that this impotence is present is that the process of inclusion seems easy. Too easy. Diversity – of people, of thought, of experience  – must be present … and it must actually be included. (This is also where lip service can do the most damage. Professing to seek and value diversity, but not being demonstrably inclusive, can quickly ruin a culture and destroy a reputation.)

The third is to know and recognize the important difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is a state of being, it is beautiful but static … a noun. Inclusion, however, is an act … a verb. Inclusion activates diversity, like a chemical reaction. True inclusion (one based on a foundation of diversity) is hard. It means listening to people who disagree with you, creating an environment where you feel safe to have your thoughts and beliefs challenged. But it is also powerful. Teaching ourselves – and our teams – to engage in productive dialogue around diversity and manage conflict productively can make the uncomfortable conversations tenable and unlock latent potential.

This article may be reprinted when the copyright, link to article and author bio are included. ©2015 Storyforge, LLC.  Please contact us for inquiries.

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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.