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Diversity Isn’t Dead, But We’ve Been Doing it Wrong

By January 23, 2014August 26th, 2020No Comments

Diversity is dead. Diversity is buried. Diversity is a waste of time and money. Diversity is appealing but not practical. These are statements I hear regularly, even from diversity professionals.

We have failed. The return on investment for diversity efforts is dismal (here’s just one example of our lack of progress despite huge investment in women’s equity in the workforce). But before we give up and sing a funeral dirge for diversity, we need to look at why it has failed.

“Diversity” has failed for two reasons: we’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons, and doing it the wrong way.  Here are the wrong reasons: it looks good to our customers, it’s the right thing to do, it’s what our competitors are doing, or it’s required to comply with the rules.  These reasons quickly fall by the wayside and diversity efforts are watered down or cut entirely when organizations fall on hard times, or when the inevitable conflicts that accompany true change appear.  The real reason to do diversity is because it gets better results.  Research shows (most recently by Scott E. Page) that diverse groups outperform individuals, non-diverse groups, and even a group of the best.  Diverse groups outperform on crucial human activities like cognition, cooperation, coordination, prediction and problem solving, to the extent that the diverse group’s superior results in prediction and problem solving can be described with a mathematical formula.  Diversity gets us better education, healthcare, policies, communities, and even profits – the top 50 companies for diversity regularly outperform the stock market by significant levels.

There’s a caveat.  Diverse groups only outperform when there is inclusiveness: effective communication, positive relationships, and understanding.  Without the “I”, the “D” alone actually creates more of what we don’t want (destructive conflict, poor communication, isolation, strained relationships, worse results, lowered productivity, poor morale).  This is because human beings evolved to interact in groups of about 150 with other humans who were a lot like us.  Our brains are not well designed to interact effectively with strangers.  Like other species, we are designed for efficiency and the path of least resistance.   Communicating with strangers in an unfamiliar context according to different rules isn’t something we have much practice doing as a species.  We’re equipped to assess another human’s “friend or foe” status in under a second.  Interacting with a stranger – especially one our ancient “downstairs” (reptilian) brain has put into the “foe” category – requires the use of our ”upstairs brain” (prefrontal neocortex), which is slower, younger, less practiced and requires up to 20% more glucose and oxygen.

This is why every few years we see headlines blaring across the top of major newspapers: “New Study Proves Diversity Doesn’t Work!”, like the press surrounding Robert D. Putnam’s study in 2007.  They’re right, diversity alone doesn’t work.  The “Skittles Approach” – “Let’s get two of them and one of them and a few of those people together, now look at our colorful, fruit-flavored team, woo hoo!  Now go out and perform!” – doesn’t work.

“Diversity” has failed not only because we’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons, but also doing it the wrong way.  Focusing only on representation and numbers; making “diversity” an extracurricular activity that’s not promoted or viewed as integral to business goals; and doing “diversity training” without including skill building, new systems, processes and accountability ensure the anemia of any “diversity” efforts and its likely demise.   Also, training must include robust content and skill building around unconscious bias, such as that which industry leader Cook Ross, Inc. provides.  Unconscious bias, not conscious exclusion, is arguably the biggest barrier to diversity and inclusion today.  As my colleague Al Vivian says, training should move people from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, then from conscious competence to unconscious competence.

A compliance-only approach to diversity creates complaints and reinforces the notion that “diversity” is for and about someone else, done as a favor.  A leadership approach to diversity is values-driven, emotionally inspiring, and strategic – tying diversity efforts to meaningful, measurable impacts on business goals. True leadership leads to commitment, which includes compliance.  A more diverse team or organization with good numbers is the result, not the goal, of “diversity”.  And we all stand to gain from diverse, inclusive environments – see one example from the Wall Street Journal about our increase of 15-20% productivity since 1960 due to lowered barriers for women and African Americans.

Diversity isn’t dead, nor should it be.  We just need to reframe why we do it, and reform how.

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