When we work with executive leadership teams from companies around the world, we often ask them to do the following exercise: Write down the names of your five closest friends, your five closest colleagues, your partner or partners (or, if things aren’t going well, the person you’d like to be your partner), and a few neighbours. We have participants draw a circle around that list of names and explain that this is their in-group. These are the people they trust the most, that they go to for advice, that they choose to spend their time with.
We then ask them to consider just how diverse that group is. Often, any individual’s in-group is diverse on some characteristic or other – sometimes it’s gender-balanced, or racially diverse, or heterogenous in some other way. However, it’s often also very homogenous in most ways, such as disability, socio-economic background, or political view.
This is a natural tendency. Research in social psychology suggests that, at a very primal level, our default position is to congregate into groups that afford us safety. Our natural reaction is also to reject the unfamiliar, in a ‘flight or fight’ unconscious response. Furthermore, the academic literature explains that humans identify with groups of their own kind, and will make attempts to fit into these groups to secure their social status. So it makes sense that our in-groups are mostly people like us.
Additionally, this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing – our in-groups are the people we’re closest with, the ones we feel naturally drawn to, and that is sacrosanct. We’re not going to change who our closest friends are or what neighbourhood we live in anytime soon. However, what we also notice is that when we look at the list of closest colleagues it is often more diverse than the other groups. And while our personal lives may not be as diverse as we would like, our work lives have some leeway for expanding that part of our in-groups.
Looking at the world we live in today, it has become increasingly easy to build a homogenous bubble for ourselves. Not only are we mostly able to choose who we interact with, but we’re also able to intensely curate – consciously or subconsciously – the content we receive online. Because of how technology companies operate now, we tend to only see news stories, opinion pieces, blog posts, and tweets that we are more likely to agree with. This includes the slant with which news pieces are reported. Again, this is natural – that curation happens because those are the stories we are more likely to read, the links we’re more likely to click on. The truth is, we like – on a very primal level – that homogeneity.
However, discrimination, marginalization, stereotyping and bias (both conscious and unconscious) can create additional fear that triggers the basic need for safety, similarity and familiarity. Our increasing self-segregation, both physical and in our online communities, gives us more space to indulge our opinions. We increasingly see our own views as correct, and we also dismiss other opposing ideas, even when they might be valid.
If we aren’t surrounded by difference, our ideas become increasingly reinforced by similar people around us. We might not be willing to even entertain the idea that those with different opinions might have a point or that their point of view could be valid. What’s worse, we begin to attribute our hatred for those ideas to the people who espouse them, and so we don’t just dismiss the ideas, but the people themselves. And we don’t even know we’re doing this to ourselves. So whilst segregation may be a natural phenomenon, it can be compounded and accelerated by unchecked human actions.
When it comes to the workplace, surrounding yourself with sameness can have even worse consequences, while diverse teams can have incredible benefits. Research in organizational behaviour has shown that diverse teams are more creative, more productive, more innovative, more accurate in predictions, more committed to their organisations, and more satisfied with their jobs. One McKinsey report from 2015 found that companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median. For those in the top quartile of racial or ethnic diversity, that number was 30%.
However, what research has also shown is that the positive benefits of diversity are only yielded when those diverse teams and organisations are also inclusive. What we mean by this is that while diversity is about getting the right mix of people with the right skills and competencies, inclusion is about making sure the mix works.
This is where managers and executives come in. They set the tone for the team and organisation. Their behaviour determines whether or not people who may not fit the “traditional” mold for the firm feel like they belong. In order for diversity to lead to positive outcomes, leaders need to ensure that their team members feel able to bring their entire selves to work, especially those parts of themselves that distinguish them from the rest of the team. For example, the co-author of my book, Steve – his background in the private sector leads him to different approaches to solving a problem than my background in academia. But equally Steve’s background as a gay, white man who grew up in rural Yorkshire provides him a different perspective on a problem than my background as an Indian man who grew up in suburban Alberta, Canada.
The question then is what can leaders do to ensure that the diversity of their organisations is leveraged? The answer lies in adaptation. Often in workplaces, we try to make new joiners adapt to the company culture. This isn’t out of a desire to change them, but rather because we want them to succeed. We want them to fit in so that they are taken seriously. However, this method simply squashes out what makes them different – the reason we hired them in the first place. Instead, our approach should focus on how we as leaders can adapt the way we work to fit them and embrace diversity. That’s what it means to be an inclusive leader.
In an increasingly globalized world, our workplaces are and will continue to be diverse. But how we work with that diversity is what will distinguish successful organisations from failing ones. Diversity is a reality, inclusion is a choice.
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