Corporate America’s commitment to workforce diversity is all the rage these days. Given the buzz, I am compelled to rally for solutions that are designed with the complexities of the subject in mind. Diversity and industry are seemingly obvious bedfellows — but the path to “happily ever after” is going to require new, and more culturally-nuanced, interventions.
Investments to increase workforce diversity made by most major corporations, regardless of the industry, are powered by the desire to drive performance results. The increased representation of diversity means that new ideas and approaches can be leveraged to create higher quality and more innovative products and services.
“Diversity equals innovation” is a great start, but it’s not enough. Nor are the more-of-the-same type approaches to building employee diversity that have taken place over the past 30 years.
As a consultant who has worked with many organizations to create or enhance a variety of diversity recruitment, retention and succession planning programs, I absolutely believe that they are essential to continue supporting, measuring and strengthening. However, I just do not think they are enough to make truly substantive strides related to workforce diversity in any industry. Instead, after three decades of hammering away at this, white men account for 72% of corporate leaders in the 16 Fortune 500 Companies that shared their data, according to a recent Fortune article.
Women in CEO roles are experiencing a “historic high-water mark” at 6.4% though we make up half the world’s population.
Why, given all of our efforts, haven’t we made more progress? Consider the following:
People like to be around others like themselves.
It’s human nature. It doesn’t require sophisticated assessments and analyses. Just reflect on popular phrases in our lexicon such as “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” or think about the last time you met someone and immediately peppered him or her with questions to find out what you have in common.
Developing relationships with people who are different than you takes effort.
The people who live in your neighborhood, shop at the same grocery store as you, worship with you, or hang out in the same nearby establishments are often people with whom you have some baseline of commonality. This predisposition to surround ourselves with people like us has led, over the past thirty years, to significant shifts in U.S. demographics — down to the neighborhood level — which was coined in 2004 by journalist Bill Bishop as “the big sort.” The result, according to Bishop, is a country that has become so polarized and so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away. The workplace is, for many people, our one self-selected environment that is pushing for more.
People have less experience and therefore comfort interacting across cultures and worldviews.
Last year I conducted focus groups with employees across eight branches of a major U.S.-based financial industry company. After being asked about the climate for race relations in the branch one employee said to me, “It has been drilled into us for the past twenty years not to talk about difference, to keep our questions and interactions safely away from anything that could be considered offensive by another person. We’ve attended anti-discrimination classes, completed mandatory online harassment courses and sat through diversity workshops ad nauseam, all of which have underscored the importance of minimizing the difference. Of course we don’t all of a sudden talk about race.”
Beware of minimization.
The many efforts over the past thirty years to neutralize tensions across cultures (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age and so forth) have actually had a minimizing effect. We are less able, and willing, to deal head-on with difference. The popularity of social media adds greatly to this phenomenon. In the age of social media as king, people choose to belong to and participate in virtual communities with like-minded people, further cutting off exposure to, and potential appreciation for, an ability to effectively navigate different perspectives.
If we concede that workforce diversity takes more intentionality and effort, then it naturally follows that just increasing representation will not be enough ensure any organization will yield the innovative results they seek. Yes, diversity does fuel innovation — but the qualification is where the rubber meets the road.
According to researcher Nancy J. Adler, diverse teams with culturally competent leaders produce higher quality and more creative outputs than monocultural teams. In the absence of a culturally competent leader, multicultural teams often struggle to agree on a common approach and communicate in ways that elicit the fullest value from each member, leading to an inability to take advantage of the synergies that come from robust exchanges within the group.