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Making the Most of Diversity

Empowering your entire workforce to truly enjoy the benefits of a diverse team

You can have the most diverse staff in the world, including people from all races, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds, and yet still gain no benefit from that diversity. The work that comes out of your team might still resemble the work produced by an all-white team. Unless you have systems in place that empower your diverse workforce and allow for the equal consideration of all ideas from all sources, the diversity of your staff will not help you innovate.

Having a good mix of experiences on your team is a great asset. Research has shown, again and again, that teams that include a range of opinions and perspectives consistently outperform homogeneous groups. As organization theorist James G. March explained, groups made up of people who are similar to one another “spend too much time exploiting and not enough time exploring.” A team of people with similar backgrounds, experiences, and education will approach a problem and come up with three solutions, for example. If you add in a few people with different experiences, they will likely have different ideas about how to solve the problem. So, instead of three ideas, you have seven. This is what Scott Page of the University of Michigan calls the “diversity bonus.” 

But, here’s the catch: if your team is diverse, but the only ideas that are considered and adopted come from the same group of people who are similar to each other, you aren’t getting a diversity bonus. You’re getting the same three ideas from the same people and preventing innovation.

If you want to enjoy the benefits of diversity, you must empower your diverse workforce. First and foremost, you must hear them. That doesn’t mean simply allowing them to speak in meetings, it also means listening to them in an engaged way, not judging what they say but seeking to understand it. They may have new proposals that, because they are unfamiliar, sound strange or wrong, and your initial instinct may be to dismiss those ideas out of hand. The comments of the people who look like you and grew up like you did, might sound more “right” because they are more familiar. It will require an effort on your part to resist the temptation to adopt those ideas that sound good based on gut instinct (your gut is highly prone to bias) and to listen carefully to the solutions that seem odd.

The front lines of diversity empowerment are found in meeting rooms and conference rooms. Meetings are more effective at encouraging diverse team members than one-on-one conversations because, in meetings, you are teaching the entire team how to respond to each other and how to consider ideas that may seem unconventional. By making room at the table for all to speak without interruption, and for all team members to give feedback, you’re encouraging your staff to respect each other’s thoughts and input. What’s more, you may hear more and better ideas. 

Most teams are not brainstorming in the most productive way. Often, we brainstorm together in a conference room, having everyone shout out their thoughts and figure out how to articulate their thoughts while they’re talking. It’s an unnecessarily long process, and not especially effective at encouraging thoughtful responses. We don’t always get the most or best ideas when we’re batting them around together. This has been researched extensively, with scientists asking groups to generate ideas in a wide variety of ways. In one study, a group was asked to write down ideas individually, then spend three minutes sharing those ideas together, then separate again to think, and then assemble again. That group produced 71 percent more ideas than the one that brainstormed in the usual way. 

After thorough research and testing, a new process for brainstorming has emerged. There are four steps to the process:

Step one – generate ideas as individuals. It can be useful to have everyone add them to a shared document or just put them on post its and tack them to the wall. 

Step two – give everyone a few minutes to read the ideas, ask for clarification, consider them. It’s important that you don’t analyze them or praise any or criticize any ideas. This process is about generating ideas, not assessing them. 

Step three – everyone separates again and writes up any new ideas they might have.

Step four – you post the ideas on the wall or in a shared document and describe these ideas or clarify them without judging. 

This system is especially effective at encouraging diverse opinions and undercutting inherent biases, because it allows ideas to be considered anonymously. In other words, you can create a shared document that everyone can add to without identifying who wrote it. Alternatively, you can have everyone send their proposals to one person and that person writes them all on a dry-erase board without revealing whose ideas they are. That way, when it’s time to discuss the proposals, you can consider them, weigh them, and assess them objectively, without being influenced by what you may think of the person who suggested it. 

Another way to empower diversity is to stop placing so much emphasis on consensus. Your staff members don’t need to agree, they simply have to collaborate. As James Surowiecki wrote in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, “the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” In other words, it is not necessary that your team members like each other; they simply have to respect each other enough to cooperate. 

In the years ahead, our workplaces will look more diverse and that’s a very good thing. Make sure that you’re hearing from all of them, not just the people who think like you do. If not, the choices you make as a heterogeneous team will look a lot like the choices you made when you were mostly homogeneous. Diversity is a huge benefit to an organization, if we only let that diversity be heard. 

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