Diversity in top leadership positions drives value and is critical at all levels of an organization to drive innovation and a sense of inclusion. Diversity opens doors, simplifies communication, and broadens both perspectives and thought. Diversity is intricate because its definition is diverse. It encompasses all the differences that make us unique—race, color, ethnicity, gender and language, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, age, physical ability, and mental ability. And we cannot stop there. Also, consider the diversity of thought, family status, cultural background, and political beliefs.
Among other things, diversity is an intellectual concept. Developing diverse teams requires understanding how people work together, are accepted, and feel about being in our workplace. The more profound question is whether we form a work environment where everyone feels wholly accepted. This moves us toward the idea of belonging.
Besides diversity, inclusion, and belonging, another vital component is equity. Equity means impartiality and fairness. It means that everyone is given the same opportunity based on their merit. This equity requires systemic, structural approaches to everything from hiring to team leadership, compensation, and—of course—promotion and assignments to challenging projects. In an equitable work environment, each individual has an equal opportunity to do meaningful work, learn new skills, take on new projects, step up to challenges, and succeed.
Questions to Consider and Discuss
Here are some questions you might want to ask in surveys, leadership meetings, or focus groups. These are also excellent discussion topics during employee affinity meetings. (Sometimes called employee resource groups, they have been mainstays of many organizations to help recruit, develop, and retain diverse candidates.)
- Do employees from unrepresented groups celebrate and share their differences (whether racial, cultural, ethnic, gender, sexual preference, or something else), or do they try to conceal them?
- Do leaders respect cultural differences, or do they suggest that employees try harder to fit in?
- Do leaders discuss their differences?
- Are our employees welcome to express their differences in a meaningful and positive way?
- Are there unwritten rules about power or prestige (like where you went to school or the kind of degree you have) at your organization?
- Do engagement and other surveys ask employees queries about their sense of belonging?
- Are cross-functional, diverse teams frequently used to solve problems?
- Are offices designed to encourage social interaction?
- Are our remote teams given enough attention to feel included in company events and activities?
Blind spots: we all have them, and they are difficult to grasp because we are blind to them. They affect who we hire, how we lead a team, and how we expect the world to work. Leaders need to examine their own biases to consider diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity. These are some common biases to reflect on and honestly discuss with your colleagues:
- Anchoring/Focalism Effect: The tendency to pay more attention to and give more credit to the first and last pieces of information offered. This sets up bias against other information we receive.
- Attribution Bias: The tendency to be self-serving and find contextual excuses for our failures but attribute the mistakes of others to character flaws.
- Backfire Effect: The tendency to strengthen a belief if someone challenges our view, even if we are faced with evidence to the contrary.
- Prototype Bias: Assuming a person is ideal for a role or task (or is not suited for the role) based on the part of their identity or a generalization about them.
- Similarity Effect/In-Group Bias: Favoring those who share your identity or background.
How to Encourage Greater Diversity
The time for change is always now—not tomorrow, not next week, next month, or a year from now; it’s now. We shouldn’t wait for the “right time” to make a move for the better. Instead, we should seize the day and the opportunity when it comes. So, how can you develop more diversity in the workplace? There is a lot that can be done as a team, a leader, and an organization as a whole. So, for example, if you’re handling the recruitment process, consider ways to minimize your unconscious bias.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the symphony orchestra in the United States was all white men. They decided to hold blind auditions to do something about that. Musicians auditioned behind the screen so the person in charge of hiring couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman or their skin color. The result of this approach was that the number of women getting accepted into orchestras increased to between 25 – 46%. GapJumpers took this idea of blind auditions and applied it to the corporate world. Instead of looking through CVs to screen their candidates, they anonymized challenges. As a result, 60% more minority applicants were selected for interviews. However, it turns out that not finding the “best candidate” was not the issue at all. The problem was that the best candidates were often overlooked due to unconscious bias.
Another example of what can be done to address diversity is to say something, even if nobody says anything. Nothing changes if we all keep silent. So, if you are in a room, in a meeting, in a company, speaking with your team or co-workers, talk about diversity and inclusion, and show that you’re aware of what’s going on.
A great team leader leverages the strengths of its members and uses those strengths to offset any weaknesses. The leader knows that an employee is so much more than just the job that they are doing. They are unique, interesting individuals with their talents, skills, and knowledge that open the team to a wealth of new opportunities. Let go of the emotions and preconceived notions or judgments that impede your progress and embrace more diversity at the workplace by doing these things:
- Challenge Yourself
- Encourage a culture of openness
- Highlight diversity
- Work on improving your social skills
- Keep an open mind and listen with one too
- Encourage team empathy
- Allow flexible work hours
- Ensure social activities are inclusive
Here’s a quick reminder: the most critical aspect of the concepts I share here is YOU. Ask yourself, how could I do that? How is this applicable to me? Which projects would this work for? Don’t read this content without delving into the ideas. Always think of (and write down) ways to implement these strategies yourself. That being said, let’s look at how you can encourage greater diversity.
Instead of looking at the common ground among your employees, start looking for the differences. Focus on that during your thought process and encourage your team to reflect on working with someone from a different background than they are. For example, when you are working together on a project with your team, at the start of the project, encourage them to share what they think makes them different and how this strength can benefit the outcome of the project.
This is also an opportunity for you, the leader, to observe whether too much of the same kind of thinking occurs because you subconsciously put together a team of people who thought the same way you did. If that’s the situation, then this is your opportunity to take corrective action by including more diversity moving forward. The first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging that there is a problem.
Encourage a Culture of Cohesiveness
When employees feel like they might be the odd one out and don’t belong, they will not be confident to speak up and share their ideas. The leader’s responsibility is to encourage openness so plans can be discussed freely. For this to happen, respect is one of the essential vital principles that absolutely must be present. An effective leader consistently inspires and helps people overcome challenges faced without depreciating them. So, provide a work environment where employees help each other and value the contributions that everyone makes. This way, they will want to give their input, even if it is unusual.
Talk about it, mention it in the job ads that you post when recruiting potential new employees, encourage your team to refer to other potential employees from groups that may be underrepresented, and reward them for it. Create guidelines at work that are diversity-friendly. Have a diverse panel for greater equality and fairness during the interview process. For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knocked it out of the park when he put together a diverse team as part of his Cabinet. In doing so, he achieved diversity, inclusion, and equality. All decisions that are going to be made now and, in the future, will be a reflection of those different minds coming together.
Work on Improving Your Social Skills
Communication and social skills promote cultural diversity. Today’s workplace is a melting pot of diverse cultures and languages. For everyone to work in harmony, it is crucial to have good social skills. As a leader, you should encourage your team to improve their social skills. Social skills lend to a solid social presence, and in the career world where connections and networking matter most, being able to socialize is an invaluable resource. It makes it easier to build productive, cohesive teams and work well together to get things done.
Social skills help you maintain positive and amicable relationships with your co-workers, regardless of how different your backgrounds may be. For example, you will spend most of your day working with them, and without the proper social skills on hand, it can be challenging to build and construct productive relationships.
Keep an Open Mind and Listen with One Too
If you listen with an open mind, you will be more receptive to hearing. Being judgmental or opinionated can disrupt your efforts to encourage unity and harmony among your followers. Judgment is a poor use of the time that distracts and weakens our focus. Everyone has a story to tell, and there is always something you can learn from someone different from you—always be a student. Encourage open-mindedness and the willingness to listen receptively among your team by demonstrating your desire to do the same. Lead by example.
Encourage Team Empathy
Encourage the entire team to put themselves in their colleague’s shoes and try to feel every emotion they do —the joy, sadness, distress, frustration, happiness, anger, whatever they may be feeling, especially if there is someone new to the team. Sometimes we forget that the ones who seem on the outs are struggling and trying their best to fit in, and it’s much harder to do that when they don’t feel welcomed by their team. It can be a very demoralizing and unhappy experience. Being empathic needs focus and concentration, but the effort will be worth it when you see how well your team comes together when more empathy is at play.
Through empathy, your listening abilities improve because you immerse yourself in the world of another. You start to pay a little more attention to how someone else feels. This skill is at the core of what it means to be a great leader and listener, someone people love talking and pouring their hearts out to.
Allow Flexible Work Hours
For your employees, the ability to work from home, have flexible work hours, or job sharing can be the difference between having to give up their job or continuing to contribute their skills to the team. This is especially true if they have other commitments to balance with work. For example, does it matter if they are physically in the office or not? In my opinion, as long as your employee is getting the job done, it doesn’t. What does matter is whether you can count on them and trust them? Flexible work environments make it easier for employees who have had to go on an extended break, like maternity leave, for example, to ease back into the work structure.
Ensure Social Activities Are Inclusive
Some activities organized by the company might not be suitable for all employees. For instance, holding a team get-together session over dinner and drinks will not be the best activity for an employee who may be a recovering alcoholic, on medication, or someone who needs to drive quite a distance to get back home. Instead, you have to consider more inclusive alternatives when planning office and team after-work activities. Of course, that is not to say that a group of friends can’t go out after work and enjoy a few drinks together. Rather, this is about ensuring that the activities planned are thought of with everyone in mind and not just a selected group of individuals.
Employees who work and play together stay together as a team. You can have bonding with your team outside of work, and it’s an essential relationship-building exercise. It helps everyone to enjoy each other’s company without thinking about work for a change, and that bond of friendship will carry over and fuel their motivation when it’s crunch time again.
The bottom line is that any organization must embrace diversity throughout its ranks if it wants to attract and retain new talent for long-term success. Diversity may be the right thing to do morally and politically, but it’s also the right and smart thing to do from a business perspective.