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The Irony of a Diverse Workforce

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Diversity. Engagement. Inclusion. These are the buzzwords du jour. We've all seen the colorful cast of characters on the company brochure or website. A nice mix of gender and race and some even throw in a guy in a wheelchair for good measure.  

But establishing and nurturing a diverse workforce is about more than hiring people who don't all look the same, and there are bottom line results for those who get it right. There are scores of studies to show that diversity boosts innovation, engagement, productivity, and organizational success. Organizations with work forces with a high level of diversity, show significant increases in the areas of employee retention. In addition, the overall combined experience of a diverse workforce can enhance community relationships, improve creativity and boost its ability to adapt and deal with disruption and change.

For example, Sodexo boasts that ‘gender balance is our business’, and their mission is to make it everyone else’s business too. 40% of all staff members in Sodexo are women, and 43% of the members on the board of directors are female. They have consistently maintained that optimal gender balance increased employee engagement by 4%, gross profit by 23% and brand image by 5%. They also show no sign of stopping on their mission to optimize gender-balance, vowing that by 2025, 40% of their workforce will be made up of women.

Full disclosure: I’m a woman and I’m more than pleased by this commitment to expand leadership opportunities for women. However, whether you identify as a member of the majority or the minority, isn’t it a stereotype in and of itself to assume that your contributions will be more or less valuable based upon human anatomy below the neck or skin color? Doesn’t this completely fail to address what we’re trying to accomplish in the first place: diversity of thought?

By focusing on race and gender, the assumption is that people who look different from me must think different from me and those who look like me must think like me. The very definition of a stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

While many organizations have made great gains in restructuring hiring and training practices to be more inclusive, taking the concept of diversity seriously requires that we look beyond race, religion, and gender and embrace diversity of thought. It appears we still have work to do in that regard.

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” – Verna Myers

In 2014, Joe Duarte and his research team found that a group of liberal social psychologists explicitly admitted they would discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs. When surveyed about their self-assessed probability of voting either for or against a known conservative job applicant (when both alternatives are equally qualified for the job), about 82% indicated they would be at least a little more likely to vote against the conservative hire, with about 43% indicating a fairly high degree of certainty they would (above the midpoint of the scale). 

Compare that with some other explicit racist tendencies. If 82% of respondents said they would vote against a black hire or a female hire, I suspect there would be some outrage. But what if the hypothetical hire were a Muslim or an atheist and the organization was located in the Bible Belt? What if the HR director is staunchly pro-choice, and he learned from a potential hire’s Facebook page that she was a staunch pro-life evangelical Christian? What if the potential hire is a proud gun rights activist and the interviewer’s daughter was killed in a school shooting?

The construct that our world views are shaped by culture, background, experiences, and personalities is core to the concept of diversity of thought. When there is dissonance between our vision of how things should be, we look for reasons for that dissonance – often in the form of flaws in others’ thinking. And flaws in thinking inevitably spill over into flaws in character.

Organizations that bring people together with diverse perspectives on a wide range of things – i.e., how learn and communicate, where they find inspiration, the way they approach problems – can create conversations that stimulate creative disagreement and cultivate tolerance and open-mindedness. The problem is often that there is a conflict between standing out and fitting in, between voicing disagreement for the good of the team and jeopardizing social cohesion to the detriment of the team.

“You don’t have to look like us” means little when “but you do have to think like us” is standard operating procedure.

The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.

Some of the world’s most innovative companies have relied on creative disagreement to foster growth. For example, Alfred Sloan, General Motors CEO from 1923 to 1946, famously closed a senior executive meeting by saying, “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” Everyone nodded. So, he continued, “Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Because the fundamental premise of diversity of thought rests on bringing together different ideas, it cultivates more ideas, better ideas, and guards against groupthink.

Does encouraging people push boundaries and challenge ideas happen without friction, effort, or conflict? Of course, not. It’s much easier to hire, promote, collaborate and even communicate with someone who shares your values and beliefs. But, without friction, effort, and conflict, growth isn’t possible.

Criticizing someone simply for having a different opinion is as not much different from criticizing yourself for having different opinions 10 years ago. Growth isn't just about challenging the views of others, it's about challenging our own views and the existing systems and norms that support those views. In addition to growing intelligence, we must also learn how to grow intellectual humility.

“Diversity: The art of thinking independently together.” – Malcolm Forbes


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