“We need more diversity around here,” said one white person to another white person.
It’s a common story. Companies want to improve their diversity. And while it’s been a major initiative of most HR departments, we still struggle to see sustained improvements. As eBay sets impressive diversity goals and Google succeeds in transforming it’s leadership team, engineering and tech industries as a whole continue to struggle in these areas.
Not for lack of trying. We’re just trying the wrong things.
Why Do We Want Diversity?
It’s understandable to be overwhelmed by the concept of building and sustaining a diverse culture. But how often do we stop to consider what we want this diversity to look like? What vision do we have of this diversity success?
Hopefully our objectives are more expansive than just completing HR’s Equal Employment Opportunity forms.
There’s the obvious moral reasons for minimizing our biases and hiring those most qualified, regardless of superficial differences. But what pushes for a diverse workforce instead of just seeking to minimize biases and ensure the best candidates get the jobs?
Most managers would say they’re looking for diversity of thought. We’re hoping to create an environment where we benefit from a range of different perspectives. We want a company that’s full of different backgrounds and world views and corresponding priorities, all of which can be brought together in pursuit of a common mission.
Regardless of whether we have studies showing the correlation between diversity and innovative thinking or McKinsey reports showing the relationship to financial returns, we inherently know that having more unique views leads to stronger companies. We shouldn’t need studies to tell us this, it’s a basic design principle. As inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee put it, “We need diversity of thought in the world to face the new challenges.”
We should also realize that if this is our goal, it’s obvious that our current HR-driven practices are not up to the challenge of meeting it.
Hire Diversity. Then Problem Solved?
“When we’re talking about diversity, it’s not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.” – Ava DuVernay, American director and filmmaker
Most companies run diversity initiatives through their HR department. Diversity hiring becomes the focus. Diversity metrics become the target.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. HR is familiar with recruiting. That’s what they know and that’s what they can influence. Unfortunately, onboarding diverse new hires is only the first step in achieving this successful vision.
It won’t result in an environment that celebrates diversity of thought. If that’s our vision of success, we need to expand our current strategy.
Look for Deep-Level Diversity
“We need to reach that happy stage of our development when differences and diversity are not seen as sources of division and distrust, but of strength and inspiration.” – Josefa Iloilo, Former President of Fiji
Most of our current diversity efforts focus on demographic variables. We think diversity and we think gender and race. And while this is necessary to develop a diverse culture, we shouldn’t ignore the benefit of also focusing on psychological diversity. When we add personality and abilities to the mix, we leverage the unique differences of individuals instead of just group stereotypes.
A sole focus on demographic variables lumps vast quantities of people within our prejudiced belief of how they’ll “contribute to our diversity.” But individuals differ greatly and every diverse group has enough overlap that we stand to gain much more by focusing on each individual’s unique contributions than those of a population at large.
One study coined this pursuit “deep-level” diversity and in a review of 385 companies, found that when a Board of Directors had greater diversity in background and personality, they exhibited higher degrees of creativity and cognitive conflict in the decision-making process.
In Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast, Sheryl Sandburg stressed the importance of hiring for cognitive diversity in addition to demographic diversity. She cited the difference in personalities between her and long-time coworker David Fisher as helping to balance their team’s responses and evaluate problems from different angles. As Hoffman summarized, “You can’t overestimate this kind of diversity. You have to have colleagues who offer calm to your chaos or put the occasional breaks on your speed.”
Most of us would consider hesitation to oppose innovation, but history has shown that in vital ways it cooperates with it. With each new idea, hesitation encourages evaluation and discourse. It subjects the new to the necessary trails before we abandon the traditional methods. As historians Will and Ariel Durant identify in The Lessons of History,
“It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.”
As we seek out deep-level diversity, we’re able to balance our company’s strengths. And we’re better prepared to develop an environment of diverse thoughts, perspectives, and values.
Encouraging Diversity and Good Parenting
“We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.” – Max De Pree, American businessman and writer
I spent two hours in diversity training last week. I’m sure there are good trainings out there on this topic, but suffice it to say that this was not one of them.
Two hours. Watching diversity videos. One was about a bunch of birds who needed to put aside their differences and work together. I am by no means an expert on any of this stuff, but I think that I can say with relative certainty that no one, anywhere, ever, has been converted into a diversity mindset by watching a video about fowl inclusion.
Everyone knows this isn’t sufficient. Yet too many companies still follow this same playbook. We’re operating under the delusion that we only need to tell people about the miracle of diversity, while enjoying 1980-style avian cartooning excellence, and we’ll be living in a diversity utopia by the end of the day.
We continue to struggle because while we create the necessary conditions for this environment, we fail to develop and sustain it. We want diverse perspectives, but we fail to appreciate them when they’re here.
In many ways, every parent goes through similar struggles. What parent hasn’t thought that if their kids would just listen to what they said, they’d be much better off?
We want our kids to retain our positive characteristics and improve on our negative ones. Which explains our frustration when they refuse to listen to the knowledge and reason we’re so altruistically passing down to them.
But maybe this desire isn’t wholly for the benefit of our kids. Maybe it also stems from our own insecurities and unfulfilled dreams. In Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon gives a moving perspective on family, parenthood, and the struggle that we all go through to develop our unique identity. He also discusses the mindset that brings about this particular behavior:
“In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do.”
In the same way that we’re predisposed to encourage those qualities in our children that best emulate our own, we’re also more likely to promote behaviors in others that represent our own values and strengths. As our children represent an opportunity to live beyond our current limits, our workforce represents an opportunity to extend our influence to a grander scale. By encouraging practices similar to our own, we’re able to promote a culture that’s more far-reaching than our individual careers. So we encourage the familiar over the new. And we fail to encourage the diverse behavior that we’re looking to create.
As we continue to champion traditional ideas, we champion the traditional employee. We show people that to advance you need to conform. Diverse perspectives become marginalized and are left with the unenviable position of conforming to status quo expectations or seeking a new environment elsewhere.
But as parents eventually realize, this is not a battle that ends well. It’s these unique aspects of our children’s identity that makes them unique. Just as it’s the unique aspects of a workforce that give it it’s strength. As Solomon saw parents try to suppress or “cure” these unique identities, he wrote:
“Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”
It’s these differences that represent our strength. As we can recognize them, we encourage their use. As we can celebrate them, we encourage their growth. As a parent’s behavior will help shape a child’s identity, our company’s behavior will shape our employees’ identity. If we’re not encouraging diverse innovation, we shouldn’t be surprised that we struggle to retain this behavior.
We’ve come to understand that diversity stimulates innovation, but we often fail to recognize that innovation sustains diversity.
Until we give people the freedom to develop and act on new ideas, we’re squandering our opportunities for diversity. We’re taking those diverse perspectives and encouraging them to stay quiet. Not until we can celebrate these diverse views can we achieve the diversity we’re looking to build.
Start Growing Today
This doesn’t come easily. Industry’s current success rate is evidence enough of that. But as with many of life’s challenges, it’s these opportunities that serve as an amplifier for our character and our capacity. As Solomon put it,
“Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents become extraordinary.”
Workforce diversity presents a similar opportunity. It gives bad companies a chance to be awful. But it also gives good companies a chance to become extraordinary.
We can choose to be extraordinary.