Diversity in Thinking: Shedding the Corporate Persona

These days you would be hard pressed to find a multinational company that does not have a Head of Diversity and Inclusion on the payroll. Some firms even have entire departments dedicated to this important issue.

But is diversity of gender, race, age and sexual orientation enough? Does a diverse and inclusive team necessarily lead to an intellectually dynamic environment as well?

Big companies love to splash images of their “diverse” workforce across annual reports and public relations material. We call this Benetton Syndrome. A quick google image search of the iconic fashion brand and its advertisements will reveal all!

Ironically however a recent investigation by Fortune revealed that only 20% of Fortune 500 companies released any specific data about the race and genders of their workforce.

    The benefit of diversity is in the ideas

    When it comes to diversity of ideas many big companies fall short.

    This too-often overlooked dimension of diversity is critical for BIG problem-solving, truly innovative thinking and bringing fresh perspectives to the table. It is not as visible as other more outward forms of diversity. Moreover it is simply difficult.

    Unfortunately many in management may also perceive it as risky and even threatening. Though none of us like to admit it, for many managers "business-as-usual" is safe and even desirable.

    Despite a veneer of outward diversity, many organisations suffer from a powerful force hindering employees’ desire to make unique contributions - intellectual homogenization. It is a drain on creativity, enthusiasm and morale.

    Furthermore, in a world where business has a vital role to play in addressing global challenges such as climate change, resource depletion and inequality, the ability for leadership to foster diverse, intellectually-challenging, even controversial ideas is essential. Remaining beholden to business orthodoxy is an even greater risk.

    This may seem obvious, yet few companies have successfully created a culture in which diversity of thinking is truly encouraged. Efficient allocation of resources is at the core of corporate management. And what could be more efficient than a workforce that thinks, acts and speaks in the same way, regardless of color, gender or background.

      Willing to rock the boat?

      Intellectual homogeneity means individuals are less likely to break ranks or "rock the boat." It also means they will be reticent to question or challenge the status quo.

      The phrase "Rock the Boat" is attributed to a 1914 speech by then US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan who famously said, "The man who rocks the boat ought to be stoned when he gets back to shore." While times have changed in the past hundred years, there are still consequences for being perceived as stirring up trouble.

      The irony is that concurrent with diversity and inclusion initiatives most big companies also spend millions defining and then indoctrinating employees into their unique culture, which confers its own, often very strong, values and worldview. Can such organisations really claim to be diverse?

        Rocking the boat may throw it off course, but isn’t unchartered territory also the domain of exciting new discoveries?

          As part of our flagship experiential leadership programme we once worked on a challenging field project with a team of executives that included an Indian, Australian, Japanese, Nigerian and Singaporean. Two were women. It was an outwardly very diverse group. But scratch just beneath the surface and things were not as they appeared.

          For starters, they all worked for the same industry leader renowned for its strong brand and culture. They all had elite MBAs. They were all selected for the GIFT programme, identified as high-potential future leaders in the company. You get the idea.

          In the early days of the programme the team’s discussions revolved around a few key themes and all in the same corporate lexicon. Indeed they were able to communicate quite effectively with each other, in English, which was a second language for all but one of them. Very few conflicting views. Lots of intelligent buzzwords.

          Play it safe was the strategy du jour.

          Needless to say there was very little in the way of contrarian opinions or BIG ideas. To use a French metaphor, the intellectual dynamic was much like a week-old baguette… stale.

          Only after a day of gentle nudging (and then stronger encouragement) to set aside their office personas, did a degree of authentic diversity of thinking emerge. By encouraging them to tap into their native experiences - their families, their history and their risky personal opinions - in a safe and neutral setting, they eventually opened up, disagreed and launched into a more rich and productive discussion. Taboos were breached.

            Welcoming dissent and divergence

            The fun started as some voiced unexpected opinions on historical injustices. Others were called out for their unconscious biases in the way they spoke. One of the team realised he had a working style which was, unintentionally, rather abrasive.

            This of course was all part of their learning and the basis upon which we gave them real-time feedback, helping them to become more self-aware in a genuinely diverse working environment.

            Most importantly the participants were able to embody and express their unique selves rather than merely act out their corporate personas, which meant a wealth of individual insights were newly accessible for the whole team. It benefitted each of them individually while also adding to the quality of the work they produced together. Had they remained guarded in their interaction they would have doubtless gained less and produced bland results.

            Most of us are not familiar or comfortable with this type of conversation - direct, open and challenging. In the corporate environment it is often perceived as risky or even inappropriate.

            It requires patience, respect, humility, and a willingness to have our position challenged, and even be proven wrong.

            It takes courage, too. Because it is much easier to simply follow along, play safe and suppress personal views, especially if these might contradict management or be perceived as attracting the wrong kind of attention.

            Perhaps now more than ever when sensitivities around gender and culture are heightened, many managers who lack the communication skills to lead or even contribute to candid conversations will instead seek to avoid and sterilize them.

            The mark of a truly diverse company is when leadership not only tolerate but indeed welcome dissent and divergent views. Learning how to capture the "leadership moment" and thus intervene at the right time to challenge groupthink or share a different view is a skill that we promote with our PRISM Tool for creating and sustaining high-performing teams.

            How does your company stack up against this metric of diversity in thinking?

            Call us or write to us and share your stories.

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