Stimulating diversity in an organization is on the management agenda of many companies and public entities. A diverse workforce is believed to lead to more creativity in solving complex problems, more acceptance for the products or services the company offers to clients, and even better financial performance. Many organizations measure the amount of gender diversity, ethnic diversity and many other representations of special-interests groups. The results – more often than not – will show an underrepresentation of specific groups (women, Hispanics, blacks, etc.), which encourages the organization to take measures to balance this out.
I studied this topic for the past few months, developing a lecture that I gave yesterday to 120 managers in the Dutch police force. I’m in the process of developing practical training that helps teams in organizations to embrace diversity. I got more and more fascinated with the topic while working on it and will continue to investigate what practically can be done in organizations to stimulate diversity. As a starting point for this work I made two assumptions:
- Addressing ‘diversity and inclusion’ from a special group (usually HR) high up in the organization will not yield results; work floor level culture change is needed
- by continuing to emphasize ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ as key topics, the problem enlarges: differences are magnified rather than embraced
If the aim of diversity efforts is to benefit from different points of view held by people who are not like each other, your efforts should aim to have very different people cooperate and communicate effectively, taking benefit from their differences. This does not happen as a result of emphasizing the importance of diversity repeatedly. This does not happen by monitoring the ethnic composition of your workforce and call for change. This does not happen by setting people targets for the amount of ‘minority groups’ they should hire (although the numbers will change, the effectiveness of the organization won’t improve).
All efforts should focus on stimulating behaviors that allow different points-of-view to be heard and used. Whether these thoughts come from women or man, black or white, or whatever ‘minority groups’ we can define. The aim is to benefit from the different visions, experiences, and points-of-view of a diverse population. This aim can only be achieved by working on a culture in which 4 behaviors and attitudes are commonplace:
- unlimited curiosity
- allow for vulnerability
- dare to make a difference
- clear communication
1. Unlimited curiosity
People should be intensely curious to understand the world from the point of view of somebody else. See the world through their eyes, and learn from the experience. Curiosity cannot be learned, but it can be stimulated. A deep interest to learn something new, from somebody who thinks and acts differently than you do. Once this curiosity is there, exploring questions will be asked, and intense listening will be practiced to benefit from the richness of different views. Wisdom is the result of knowledge based on understanding new information, resulting from a curious investigation.
2. Allow for vulnerability
Vulnerability is generally not welcomed in a macho-culture, where people have strong opinions and hold on to these. Vulnerability means that you hold strong opinions, yet at the same time recognize you might be wrong. There should be room for nuance in discussions. In this way, discussions are not an exchange of incompatible, extreme positions (“I am right, so you must be wrong”). They rather form a search for shared wisdom. This will be a reality when people are ok to admit ‘they don’t know’. In a culture where people are not afraid to put themselves in a vulnerable position, inconvenient and uncomfortable things will come to the surface: these things usually represent an important voice in the organization.
3. Dare to make a difference
However diverse the opinions and points of view in an organization, nobody will benefit if these opinions don’t get expressed. This requires individuals to speak up and express themselves, even if their views are radically different from the norm. People need mental toughness to do this: form their opinions independent of the norm and the opinions of others, and express these without fear. It requires people to take ownership of their opinions and ideas, to say what they think needs to be said. Even if the consequence is that they won’t be liked for their opinion.
4. Clear communication
The way in which people express themselves needs to be unconstrained. No complicated sentences that make things nicer than they are, no smooth talk or abstract formulations to cover up the inconvenient truth. Short and concise expressions, using simple language and saying it like it is. Speak your mind. Ask probing and deep questions in the search for new points of view. This is not a call for harsh or unfriendly communication, it is a call for clarity: “No shine without friction”.A culture in which these behaviors and attitudes are stimulated and welcomed will be a culture in which diverse points-of-view are expressed and embraced.
How to realize this? I’m currently working with a few colleagues on a new training ‘Diversity in Action’ to be launched after the summer. In this training, the above behaviors will be stimulated and learned. At the same time, we recognize that some of the underlying attitudes cannot be learned, so we’re looking for ways to encourage these attitudes such that over time they become natural to the person.
Stimulating these behaviors in a team or in departments in an organization can only be done bottom-up. A top-down (Diversity & Inclusion department) approach of telling people to behave this way will work counter-productive, and will not contribute to the initial goals you had for creating a diverse organization. Organizations in true search of ‘diversity’ stimulate these behaviors at all levels, encouraging a culture where people dare to be different and express themselves clearly, and where limitless curiosity and personal vulnerability go hand in hand.