When you google “diversity and inclusion,” more than 300 million results return. It’s great news that this important topic is top of mind for many leaders and organizations. But while related, diversity and inclusion are different and require different approaches. Let’s start with diversity.
With the ongoing war for high-performing talent, diversity is a strategic business imperative. Educational institutions, thought leaders and management consultants have produced a number of articles, videos, podcasts and books on the topic. Further, leaders from organizations of all sizes have stepped forward to voice their support and to ensure there is the right “tone at the top” for this future-proofing initiative. However, despite the heightened awareness and information available, we are not nearly where we want to be. When it comes to implementing a new cybersecurity practice, setting up an office in a new territory or implementing new methodologies, we find ways to make it happen, but lasting diversity sometimes feels just outside our reach.
Diversity is personal, and until we are willing to suffer the discomfort of confronting our own belief systems, the changes will only last as long as an amazing, visionary leader is in place. Great progress is being made, but in order to encourage more lasting change, organizations must be willing to go beyond the usual business case.
The business case for diversity
The diversity business case usually includes the benefits to the organization — more profits, better team performance, a broader talent pool. Let’s be honest, diversity is trending among customers. More and more customers, clients and business partners are asking about diversity and inclusion initiatives. Diversity is good for business, and those organizations that encourage, enable and promote diversity of thought will gain a competitive advantage.
How can you effectively reduce customer friction? Want to modernize your financial processes? Reduce the time it takes to implement new regulations? These questions are not just for the top leadership team. Let’s crowdsource new ideas, new processes and technology opportunities from across the organization. The next million-dollar revenue idea passes you in the hall each day during lunch. Diversity of perspective is an untapped strategic advantage for organizations of all sizes.
Diversity at the next level
Diversity training sessions are usually uncomfortable as we hear more about affinity bias where we tend to give people who have a connection to us the benefit of the doubt, and confirmation bias where we believe certain things are true, so we will make assumptions and look for things that confirm our beliefs. Many of us sit in the audience as champions wondering who those other people are — those people who are making hiring and promotion decisions based on gender, race, orientation, age, etc. Imagine our horror when we realize those people are us. We then all leave the training with the best of intentions to “be the change we want to see” and to be diversity allies. Unfortunately, real life does not always measure up. Why? Because diversity is personal.
Consider the number of well-documented instances where someone was neutral or a diversity opponent until it was actually their loved one involved. Imagine our surprise to see the change in perspective. Nevertheless, I think experiences like this are key. Diversity requires personalization. Maybe that’s what’s missing in many of our current approaches. What if instead of speaking to the head, we instead speak to the heart? Moreover, what if we highlight our similarities as well as our differences? Diversity training must go to the next level to showcase the success of when we get it right and recognize leaders and organizations not just for their revenue success but also for employee retention, satisfaction, leadership succession and promotion results.
Everyone is diverse
Next-level diversity training requires hands-on exercises. Consider an exercise in which an instructor gives everyone in the group a piece of chocolate candy. Each piece looks the same, yet one bite could reveal dark chocolate, caramel, almonds, cherries, etc. And as hokey as it may seem, put your hand in a bag of marbles without looking. Would you guess the blue ones or green ones? The goal in either example is to illustrate the iceberg diagram that highlights visible and unseen differences. The candy looked the same and the marbles felt the same. Yet, they were different. The point? We are all more similar than we appear — beyond the race, age, gender and abilities we can usually detect. Even in a group of seemingly similar people, there are differences — hair color, religion, communication style, geography, birth order, etc.
Effective leadership requires skill in motivating, enabling and developing high-performing, talented team members. It also requires an understanding that one size fits one. Getting the team to recognize that we are all different in some way would shrink the difference between majority groups and underrepresented ones. Next, let’s identify “likes” that people bond over. Ask for the pet owners to stand and then break down the group by dog and cat lovers. Imagine the improved team performance that could result when employees realize that the co-worker who sits next to them loves dogs, skiing, or is a night owl just like them. Note all who are standing — LGBTQ, Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinx and Pan-Asian team members along with Caucasian team members as well as those of different abilities. Priceless!
Mandatory or optional?
Articles that endorse either mandatory or optional training are plentiful. However, after looking at the various pros and cons, I think next-level diversity means diversity training for everyone just as we do for sexual harassment, insider trading, ethics, etc. Why? Because inconsistent training leads to inconsistent results. How do you influence more thoughtful team actions when only a third of the team including the leader of the diversity team and the visibly diverse team members know the dos and don’ts of diversity? The rest of the team walk on eggshells because they don’t know what the other one-third knows. In what other initiative would we allow such a disconnect across the organization? A key benefit of having everyone trained is that the CEO will not be the only one talking about diversity. At the very least, everyone would be on the same page.
Imagine the possibilities
Imagine what would happen if the entire team recognized that our differences represent an amazing kaleidoscope of strengths and more strengths. With an understanding that everyone is different, one group would not feel neglected to the benefit of another. As a result, diversity would become a horizontal initiative that is living and breathing and not only a task to be “risk managed” by the chief legal counsel’s office.
We have admired the notion of diversity long enough. Next-level diversity will be uncomfortable, but the benefits will be worth it. Just imagine if organizations were able to attract and retain high-performing team members who are not afraid to tap into their diverse experiences. These team members would be able to anticipate change, learn new competencies from one another, and seek leadership opportunities. The possibilities are exciting and inspire me to seek new ways of getting this important message across. Leaders lead people, and people represent a rich tapestry of differences that matter to the future of the organization. Together, we would all become carpenters to build a bigger table of opportunity and access, one that lasts beyond the current leader.