Making The Most of Diversity Efforts

5/17/2016

In today’s globalized world, diversity is a given. Most organizations have employees, partners and clients who are culturally diverse. Some organizations even have guidelines put in place that directly impact employee recruitment, vendor lists and other business matters to ensure the businesses are representative of the communities they serve.

Yet do workplace diversity and inclusion efforts help organizations perform better? Most organizational leaders would say yes. But would they only respond in the affirmative because it is the socially responsible answer? After all, the drive to act in a socially responsible way is very strong for most organizations, as it is important for the employees who work for them and the clients they serve. Today’s business leaders especially want to appear socially responsible to the newest generation of employees and clients: the Millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 1996), who are generally impressed with diversity and inclusion policies.

Yet some organizational leaders are weary of embracing diversity and inclusion programs.

There are organizational leaders who believe – whether subconsciously or not – that diversity causes more problems than it is worth. They believe that with heterogeneous groups, more differences can take root and drive people apart. There has been some research to support that theory. Certain relational demographic studies have shown that working with others who are dissimilar can be associated with negative outcomes. Persons working with dissimilar others may be more likely to show lower commitment to the organization, express less satisfaction, perceive more discrimination, and display a variety of other negative behavioral and attitudinal outcomes. Some studies in psychology have found similar results. People tend to view themselves more positively when they can identify with a group of people who are similar to themselves. Indeed, people have a tendency to put themselves and others into in-groups and out-groups, and to attribute to members of the out-group the negative characteristics of the team, while members of the in-group are considered the status quo.

This only reaffirms the need to have organizational leaders actively manage diverse groups with extra levels of care than they would homogeneous groups. When well-managed as part of an inclusive work environment, diverse teams have been found to be more creative, dynamic and productive than heterogeneous groups. And diverse work groups create products and solutions that are better suited to a diverse clientele.

Given the increase in diversity among employees and clients in this globalizing world, how can leaders embrace inclusiveness and direct themselves and their diverse employees into productive working relationships?

The benefits of a diverse workforce are more likely to be realized when an organization’s culture, strategies, leadership team and people reflect an inclusive environment, and when all employees feel valued.

First comes introducing the diversity and inclusion initiative. Research in a variety of areas has shown that the way messages are framed leads to how the recipients of those messages perceive and respond to them. If a diversity and inclusion initiative is framed as a program that is intended to remedy a situation, it may not be taken seriously, and it will only be good as long as it is remembered. Instead, leaders should frame diversity and inclusion initiatives as an opportunity, and can even include special events and incentives to boost engagement.

It is also highly recommended that employees and leaders get to know each other well as individuals as early in the process as possible. When colleagues first meet, they gain a surface-level understanding of each other’s primary diversity characteristics, such as race, gender, age and physical ability. However, over time and with concerted cultural outreach, they can gain an understanding of each other’s backgrounds, cultural orientations, strengths and challenges. This understanding can lead to more efficient, respectful and productive interactions among colleagues.

Throughout the process, organizational leaders must give the impression that they are part of the program. The perception that top management supports diversity and inclusion efforts, as well as having a multicultural top management team itself, is powerful. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” rings true here.

While diversity is a given in today’s world, inclusion is a choice. When diverse teams are managed well, with a concerted effort toward cultural understanding, they present greater creativity, drive and effectiveness than homogenous groups, and can better reach their diverse clientele.