The Gatehouse Blog

You’re looking at diversity all wrong: why it’s really important

One of the phrases internal communicators dread to hear is “because the chief executive wants to”. A leader who decides to take a certain communications approach or pet project forward, ignoring the advice of their teams or because their reports feel unable to challenge their view, is making decisions based on their knowledge and experience alone. In a world realising the benefits of more diversity, the chief executive’s team of one is the least diverse team possible.

Improving diversity in the workplace started as an exercise in equality. It isn’t fair to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, race or background, and the law ensures hiring policies reflect that.

But it’s not just equality driving the need for more diversity among employees. It’s clear from research that a more diverse workforce is a more effective one, and that means diversity across a range of factors, from religion to schooling to culture, as well as age, disability and sex. People from different backgrounds have different views of the world and approach problems in different ways, making it more likely they will find a wide range of answers — and more likely that those answers will be effective ones. Challenging the status quo is worthwhile.

Matthew Syed, an author and business consultant — as well as a former Commonwealth Games table tennis gold medallist — makes a convincing case that bringing together teams of people with different backgrounds and perspectives is the best way to address the need for diversity to improve performance. In his book Rebel Ideas: The Power Of Diverse Thinking (John Murray, Sep 2019), he calls it “cognitive diversity”.

People from different backgrounds have different views of the world and approach problems in different ways, making it more likely they will find a wide range of answers – and more likely that those answers will be effective ones.

Diversity helps teams avoid simply accepting the status quo, by contributing an outsider’s view. For example, consider that immigrants are, on average, more creative and entrepreneurial. Immigrants make up 13% of the US population but 27.5% of people who start a new business. “This is not because immigrants are superior but because experiencing different cultures provides greater latitude to question the conventions,” Syed says.

Syed provides powerful examples illustrating why diversity is important in organisations. The whole of the UK government team behind the policy to introduce the Poll Tax in 1990 had wealthy families and did not appreciate how hard low-earners would be hit by it. The policy was desperately unpopular and led to riots in central London. If you fill a team with people from one background, even if they are Oxbridge intellectuals, they are likely to have similar life experiences, similar professors and similar views of the world.

Strikingly, Syed suggests that one reason the US intelligence community did not prevent the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 was that it was dominated by white Christian men. They did not grasp how Osama Bin Laden used Islamic symbols to build support, Syed says.

Businesses are beginning to understand the need for diverse voices. Many businesses use the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator tools to help employees recognise how different types of people perceive the world and make decisions. Consulting firm Deloitte, recognising that the most effective teams “have both diversity… and an awareness and ability to leverage that diversity”, has developed a framework for clients, called Business Chemistry, devoted to helping leaders get the best out of diverse stakeholder groups.

What you can do

It is clear that the weight of evidence supports more diversity at work, and it’s not just about addressing unconscious biases and hiring more diverse staff. So, what can internal communicators do about it?

First, use teams rather than individuals to work on IC projects and to solve problems. Two (or more) heads are indeed better than one, and co-operation is the key to breakthroughs in science and engineering, for example, where 90% of papers are now written by teams (rather than somewhat less-diverse individuals).

Second, anonymity is your friend. Anonymous staff contributions unlock a diversity of viewpoints you simply don’t get otherwise, and increase the number and diversity of ideas generated through feedback groups, brainstorming sessions or enterprise social media. Opinions about anonymous ideas are judged on merit, not on the basis of who is sharing them.

Third, make sure your employee representative groups, survey samples and other teams asked to give feedback are diverse enough to accurately represent the views of the workforce. Choose enough junior and operational staff, for example, to get a range of opinions, and impress on the group that one of their objectives is to gather a full spectrum of views. Outsiders often spot opportunities that insiders may miss, and insiders have expertise in the details of how organisations run. You need both.

Fourth, don’t nominate senior managers to run working groups and other teams; put junior managers in charge. It’s good for their development, but it also means other team members are less likely to be intimidated and more likely to say so if they see possible problems or improvements.

In a study of teams at Google, the most important factor behind successful teamwork was “psychological safety”, the ability to speak up without fear of sanction. There’s little to gain in having a diverse group if some team members’ views are never heard, let alone acted upon. In fact, Google has a specific programme, Diversity Core, dedicated to bringing different people together on projects and to “disrupt the status quo at Google”.

As Matthew Syed says, “By opening ourselves up to diverse ideas, we not only detect new opportunities but diversify our minds. That is not to say that we don’t need specialist expertise; quite the reverse. We need both conceptual depth and conceptual distance. We need to be able to understand the status quo but also to question it.”

Next time someone tells you that the justification for taking action isn’t based on research or strategy but “because the chief executive wants to”, it’s time to challenge the status quo.

Biography: James Harding

James Harding is an expert in internal comms, with more than 25 years of experience in communications, content and journalism.

   Tweet him: @JamesHardingEsq