How diversity helps your business
(Doing an inclusive and diverse culture is hard. Executives sometimes worry that diversity can polarize a culture, rather than unifying it. Find some tips on how to do it right, at the end of this article.)
Good software engineers are hard to find. So if you need them for your business, it makes sense hire women as well as men. Why cut yourself off from half the population, right?
In June 2017, just a month before this column appeared, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had to step down from the company he founded. Why? Because of his toxic, homogenous culture. A culture with not enough diversity, which made women unsafe. Women engineers were sexually harassed at work.
Susan Fowler said it started on her very first day on her new team. Her new manager sent her chat messages suggesting they start a sexual relationship. On her very first day!
When good engineers leave it’s hard to replace them. It’s expensive to replace them. And it drives up the cost of your staff.
Most of those valuable engineers (who happened to be women) left without saying very much. But when Susan Fowler left, she told everybody about it. A month later, Kalanick admitted he had inculcated and fostered that culture, and he stepped away from Uber.
Is “lack of diversity” really the problem here? Or was it just an aggressive culture in general that was the problem?
To answer that question, let’s look at what “diversity” is. What kinds of diversity are there, and are diverse organizations *really* a good idea?
Because, and I don’t know about you, but I much prefer dealing with people “like me” than people unlike me.
And I’m not alone. The HR professionals say: “People hire in their own image.” Which is bad news for diversity.
There are biological reasons for this. As social primates we are hard-wired to divide people into “us” and “them.” In South Africa it’s usually Black / White, or Xhosa / Pedi.
Studies have shown how White Americans immediately see a Black face as one of “Them.”
Unless the Black person is wearing a baseball cap with the White Person’s favourite sports team on it. Then it doesn’t matter what your color is. “Us” is people who like “our” team; and “them” is people who support the other team.
Here are seven kinds of diversity:
- Racial / ethnic diversity. In South Africa we see this as a Black/White issue. But I speak passable Zulu which means I’ve been exposed to some pro- and anti-Zulu prejudice. Let me tell you there is as much difference culturally between the broad Sotho and Zulu cultures as there is between Bavarian Germans and, say, the Swedes.
- Gender / sexual orientation diversity. Having daughters has really opened my eyes into the way it’s still very much a “man’s” world. Heterosexual men just fit in effortlessly into the culture. In most fields, a women’s opinions count less, their safety counts less, their experience counts less than a man’s. And if you’re gay or bi, your ability to get ahead in life is often dependent on your ability to integrate into male heterosexual culture.
- Demographic diversity. As I approach my 50th birthday, I still feel as young as I ever was. The reality is that the world keeps moving forward. It’s useful to have younger people to show us how they see the future. I also can’t see as well as I used to, and my hearing is also going. Having teams blind or deaf or other disabilities helps us be clearer.
- Intro/extroversion and thinking styles. Some people solve problems mechanistically; others solve them creatively. We crafted an innovation workshop recently and the presence of a salesperson in the team who had an advertising background helped us strengthen the offering. You need people with different skills and approaches to make sure you cover all the bases.
- Geographic diversity. Having managed cross-border teams I can tell you Zimbabweans, Zambians and Capetonians have very different cultures. We’ve had German, French, Swiss and American clients and suppliers. It’s useful to have that cultural and geographic diversity to make sure you’re appealing to universal humanity, rather than something culture-specific. It’s easy to assume Canadians are just like Americans because they have similar accents. Not so!
- Linguistic diversity. Useful in a country where more than 80% of your customers have a language other than English as a mother tongue.
- Economic status. It’s hard for young, middle-class marketers to have real empathy for the life of of a rural customer with limited access to bandwidth or good coffee. In the same way, millionaires value different things from mere thousandaires. And if you can’t have empathy, you can’t offer value.
What are some of the benefits of diversity?
- Better performance: In a 2011 analysis by insurance firm Credit Suisse of 2,400 companies, with men and women on the board outperformed companies that had no gender diversity. Mostly mixed teams looked over each others’ shoulders more. Consulting firm McKinsey found companies in the top most diverse organization — that’s just ethnic and racial diversity — had better than average returns more than a third (35%) of the time. Companies with more gender diversity had higher than average returns 15% of the time. Because of how averages work, that necessarily means that the less diverse a company was, the worse it did, on average.
- Better innovation for more customers. The more diverse your teams are, the more robust your products, services and offerings will be. That was a finding from Deloitte. When people think “their organisation is committed to and supportive of diversity and they feel included,” there’s an 83% increase in their ability to innovate.
- More effective teamwork. In our experience running teams using using Meredith Belbin’s work, we’ve realized diversity makes teams more effective. More points of view lead to better decisions. More thinking styles lead to better insights. You need all sorts of people for a team.
- Attracting the best talent. Think of it this way: if you’re looking for the best people, you should look everywhere. If you ignore people who are different from you, you exclude a huge section of the population from your talent search. A more diverse organization is an organization that attracts more people, strengthening your organization.
- Avoid litigation. This is a bit of a negative “benefit” but the truth is, it matters. Litigation is expensive and distracting and destroys reputational and shareholder value.
- Reduce staff turnover. If a culture is too homogenous, it becomes toxic to minorities. That edges them out, and you have to replace them. This is what happened to Uber — it’s white, heterosexual, macho culture was very toxic to women, and caused their founder and CEO to have to step away from the company.
- Better conflict resolution. As I said earlier, it’s uncomfortable to deal with people we think of as “them” instead of “us.” A study by Northwestern University put it this way: “The mere presence of diversity in a group creates awkwardness, and the need to diffuse this tension leads to better group problem solving.”
How to do Diversity properly
Getting Inclusion and Diversity right is not easy. If you’re not careful, differences can splinter and polarize a culture, rather than heal and unify it.
- You have to really believe in the whole idea of diversity. If this is just lip service, everybody will see through it and you will do some lasting damage to the culture, your business and the bottom line
- Try to “check your privilege.” This is an uncomfortable exercise, and very necessary. Racism and sexism is so part of our culture, we’re not even aware of it. If you search the web for “female privilege,” “male privilege”, “white privilege,” and even “privilege based on wealth.” You may find this brilliant example of how privilege can work.
- Involve more people in the hiring decision. If you get a trusted colleague to help you with the decision — especially if they are very different from you — you’re more likely to get a better decision.
- If you’re a leader, you know this already: you need excellent conflict resolution skills. Now is the time to invest in upskilling yourself. Try the work of John Gottman or Marshall Rosenburg for starters.
More diversity is good for your teams, for your business and for yourself.
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