To date, diversity has largely been pitched through the lens of fairness. Organisations have spent time and money teaching their leaders about unconscious bias, discrimination, privilege, and equity. The approach has been successful to deliver awareness and commitment to change.
As organisations progress their understanding of the subtle dynamics of diversity and inclusion, we realise that fairness is a subjective concept: most people feel they are making fair decisions, based on their own interpretation of the world. Added to this is the issue that fairness in an organisational context is often perceived as costly or contradictory to performance. We have more work to do to explain how diversity effectively adds value to the bottom line.
In this article, we will debunk and reframe three fundamental misconceptions:
- Identity diversity does not systematically deliver cognitive diversity
Common misconceptions have led us to believe that diversity of thought in our team will automatically come if we have demographic diversity, yet our gender, age, cultural, ethnic descent, or sexual orientation does not solely define who you are and how you contribute to a team or a role.
Our thinking preferences, our values, our emotional experiences, our approach to problem solving, our passions… are more critical in determining what makes each of us unique. This is influenced in much greater ways by our unique life path, the level of adversity we have faced and the people who have surrounded us.
Our identity that we inherit at birth does not solely pre-determine what academics have described as “mental models”. By focusing on cognitive diversity, we will naturally attract identity diversity, however if we focus solely on identity diversity, we can run the risk of selecting individuals with the same background as the rest of the team, perhaps with only a different gender.
- Inclusion does not occur just because we have diversity
Let us clearly define what inclusion requires. Enhanced performance will be delivered when a debate of ideas can truly take place. Robust challenge, constructive dissent and healthy conflict are the birthplace of innovation and the only way to leverage diversity of thought.
Inclusion is often misconstrued as a sense of comfort, social justice, or kindness. In an organisational context, inclusion could be synonymous with a commitment to actively seeking, inviting, and leveraging opinions that are different to one’s own.
Many leaders confuse consensus with inclusion. Consensus is in fact the enemy of inclusion. If you indicate to your colleagues that you are seeking consensus to move forward with a plan, it will more than likely result in groupthink. You may feel confident because you have broad support, but it does not necessarily ensure your strategy is accurate.
To shift these deep-seated cultural norms, leaders can choose to use a different language to describe decision making processes. They can reiterate (again and again) their expectations for debate of ideas and a devil’s advocate approach to thinking rather than describing a good decision as ‘unanimous’. They can focus on creating psychological safety so that people not only feel it is ok to challenge their manager’s point of view but are expected to challenge it.
- Organisational values play an unspoken yet powerful role in determining whether inclusion can take place
A sense of inclusion is driven by employees’ instincts and their perception of what is valued by the organisation. This is sometimes hindered unconsciously and inadvertently by the organisation’s stated values and in performance assessment conversations.
There are three types of values and in each case, it’s important to consider whether they create the context for diversity of thought to flourish.
a/ Values that illustrate the organisation’s core strategy
These can be dangerous if we conflate aspects of the organisation’s strategy with how employees are expected to behave. By defining an organisational core value with a single focal point of its strategy (sales approach, product focus, client targets…), we imply that employees should have this strategy as a ‘mindset’. In such circumstances, we potentially negate an individual’s ability to challenge certain strategic choices. Given the level of change and disruption in our environment, these can lead to a lack of agility and openness from leadership to explore required strategic shifts.
Wells Fargo took 10 years to realise that their aggressive cross-selling sales targets were unrealistic and unfit to meet their customers’ actual needs. In 2016, the organisation agreed to pay $185 million in fines for the fraudulent acts of more than 5,000 employees, who felt they had no choice but to engage in fraudulent activities to meet their sales target. Cross-selling and offering different products to each customer was initially a clever strategic decision but it had become so core to the organisation’s personality that anyone who tried to challenge it was undermined and tarred as not displaying the right values. There was no room for diversity of thought, and it costed the company its reputation.
b/ Values that illustrate personality traits
‘Courage, boldness, passion, fun…’ are some of the words that can emerge when defining the culture we want to shape. They often reflect the brand the organisation itself is intending to create in the eyes of its customers.
To identify whether they hinder cognitive diversity, we can question whether we would want all team members in a strategic decision-making moment to display this personality trait. When considering if the organisational value is appropriate, one can question whether there is benefit in having someone display the opposite character trait in that important debate. For example, would we want everyone to be bold and passionate or would we also want to ensure we attract, retain and value risk-averse and pragmatic thinkers?
c/ Values that illustrate behavioural traits
These are the most effective to describe a culture and set expectations without risking inclusion or diversity of thought. Some examples include: ‘We are open to challenge’; ‘We respect and invite all perspectives’; ‘We learn through feedback’…
Yet, organisations also need to navigate some unintended consequences from positive organisational values. In 2018, following CBA’s money laundering scandal, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority produced a public report on its inquiry. The panel found that cultural factors ‘lie at the heart of [the] shortcomings’ that led to the Commonwealth Bank’s misconduct findings. Specifically, the APRA report pointed out the problem with ‘the collegial and collaborative working environment’ and the fact that the ‘pursuit of consensus has lessened constructive criticism’. The report also outlined that ‘healthy challenge’ was missing in a culture dominated by trust and belief of ‘good intent’.
As we progress on the D&I 2.0 journey, it’s important that we remain open to recognising the embedded ways our traditional culture can hinder our diversity objectives. Organisational values are the first step in identifying whether your organisation is truly ready to welcome diversity of thought.
Article by: Maud Lindley