The Economist has always had a way with words. This week, one of their article titled "Diversity Fatigue" naturally caught my eye. Even more attention grabbing was the article's opening salvo:
"Ronald Reagan once said that 'The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'.'"Today they are run a close second by 12 words: 'I'm from human resources and I'm here to organise a diversity workshop."
It's not hard for most people to understand the sentiment. Even the most die-hard advocate for workplace diversity can sympathize with employees who are simply trying to meet their monthly targets, quarterly earnings and million other obligations and stresses at work and on the home front. To some, it may seem like diversity training is mostly a distraction from the objective benchmarks they're working to achieve, and lacking in "ROI".
That said, most employees, if pressed, would probably also acknowledge that diversity does improve many business outcomes. Even if you are not versed in the latest research and data on female leaders' correlation with more profitable companies and diversity leading to improved group-work outcomes, there's a lot of common-sense intuition behind the notion that people who have identical training and backgrounds won't come up with the best and most creative solutions to problems.
What's often left unspoken, however, is whether there any circumstances when homogenous teams do better than diverse teams. Are there any costs to pursuing diversity? What challenges can diverse workforces raise?
The Economist turns for answers to author David Livermore who has spent his career in diversity consulting and written a new book, "Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity". Livermore points out that it's easier to establish trust with people who are very similar to you. Trust is an important pre-requisite for effective collaboration and teamwork, especially in high-pressure and high-stress environments.
Livermore also says that it may also be easier to communicate when you are working with people who are more similar to you. As the Economist writes:
"Too many companies fail to rethink their management styles as they open their doors to new groups. They issue ambiguous instructions which presume that everyone comes from the same background. For example, one Western company urged its employees to "act like an owner" without realising that, in some cultures, acting like an owner means playing golf all day. They evaluate people on their willingness to speak up without realising that some people -- women especially, in many countries -- are brought up to hold their tongues and defer to authority."
In sum, diversity does pay off, but it requires hard work that takes sustained commitment and effort. Employers have to hire and retain diverse individuals but that's only the beginning. They also have to make sure their work environment and culture is inclusive of individuals from very different backgrounds and not just because it's the right thing to do morally (which it is) -- but because that's a precondition to reaping the rewards of diversity in the first place.
As much as we applaud transparency and the trend of employers measuring and releasing workforce demographic data, the harder part may very well reside in the day-to-day culture and management practices at employers.
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