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Lately events have changed the way we work. Remote work has become a daily reality for most, traditional business plans are being challenged, and well-known leadership principles are being revised. This sudden and violent change is causing business to struggle and reevaluate the way they conducted business before corona. It is a time of innovation and creativity, as companies race to find the best solution to deal with the new landscape they see themselves confronted with. And it is in this context that we find diversity as a key to overcome adversity.
The BCG and the Technical University of Berlin surveyed diversity managers, HR executives and MDs at 171 German, Swiss, and Austrian companies and confirmed that companies with a diverse workforce have higher innovation revenue compared to companies with a lower diversity ratio[i]. The survey took place the second half of 2016 and the companies represented a wide variety of industries (chemicals, technology, consumer goods, finance, and healthcare) and company sizes (one third fewer than 1.000 employees, one quarter more than 10.000 and 42% from 1.000 to 10.000). They used statistical methods (correlations and regression analyses) to show the relationship between diversity and innovation. Additionally, they expanded on the steps companies can take to increase the power of diversity among others. Therefore, diversity offers a solution to innovate and quickly adapt to the current shift in traditional operating models, as long as it is provided with proper management and the necessary resources.
We understand team diversity as the existence of different cognitive identities within a team. This could be the consequence of well-known topics like gender, age, nationality, or simply based on different experiences, education, professional development. Therefore, the level of diversity within a team would be determined by the degree of divergence between the mindsets and whether it is managed towards a convergent group mindset or towards an appreciation of diversity difference.
A wide variety of mindsets can achieve a broader insight into facts, consequently increasing customer understanding and helping organizations adapt their products and services to the needs of their clients. A diverse team compiled of many different mindsets often also translates into a diverse set of working methods. A diverse team is much more likely to find many different approaches to solve a problem, then a non-diverse team (for further details on how diversity has a positive impact on innovation, we highly recommend to check Martinez et al Diversity is strategy: the effect of R&D team diversity on innovative performance, 2016).
People react differently when confronted with uncertain situations. Some are more comfortable when dealing with uncertainty and adjust easily, some have a more emotional reaction, some prefer a data driven approach or keep planning regardless of the context and some actually prefer a setting where plans can be adjusted on a shorter-term basis. This is where diverse teams again have an advantage over non-diverse teams. Each member of a diverse team offers their own set of experiences. Those experiences, when leveraged together, help to shape the “new normal”, bringing higher resilience levels to the organization and allowing it [ii] to at a higher competitive level in uncertain situations than a team with a lower diversity degree. It also allows improved decision-making quality, as those individuals that are more comfortable dealing with higher levels of uncertainty can bring new ideas and help build rapid response teams.
Diversity also works best when comfort zones are challenged[iii], and preconceptions and biases are questioned. It is only when individuals revise their self perception and allow themselves to listen to divergent perspectives that overall diversity can be leveraged. For example, a remote setup can be seen as a disadvantage and it can be perceived that individuals not working on-site are less productive and efficient. However, some forms of diversity even require flexible working setups and remote alternatives. Working mothers and fathers can feel even more motivated as they are allowed now to keep a better balance between work and family and are given the chance to spend more time with their children. The same applies to individuals that place greater emphasis on family time. Plus the need for a remote setting is also a side effect of the current situation. This translates into an opportunity for the organization to welcome unexpected change as a lesson to incorporate these practices into the culture, and through them incorporate a positive change that will allow them to leverage a wider and more diverse pool of talent.
So, how do I leverage diversity in my organization?
Well, unfortunately, there is no fixed recipe for this. Creating a complete list that covers all possible scenarios is impossible, but we could name some good actions to start with, that gave us a nice starting point at expertlead:
- Challenge opinions and views on facts: Ask for feedback from others and take them seriously. Allow yourself and others the time to consider new alternatives.
- Foster an environment where every opinion is treated equally, and everyone has a chance to express themselves: Increase communication channels and be on the lookout for a dynamic of permanent consent from leadership.
- Allow time for brainstorming and innovation: Create a safe and dedicated environment to listen to proposals from different angles. This implies a non-judgemental approach towards diversity of ideas and opinions, encouraging input from all participants, providing communication channels and strategies for all to feel comfortable with sharing input and being aware of “silent members” to ensure no peer pressure or power unbalance is hindering the dynamic.
- Be on the lookout for the appearance of biases and in/out-group behavior: The reduced direct contact with other colleagues caused by a general remote setup can lead to the reinforcement of biases and judgments, as conversations are postponed, and individual’s “normality” becomes their home normality rather than a context of a consistent exchange with colleagues. Monitor methods of communication and behaviors to prevent the formation of reduced groups that get in the way of a broader collaboration.
- Be attentive to negative emotional responses and distress signals: The changes brought on by this new reality can bring different challenges and have diverse impacts on the way people deal with them emotionally. Issues can arise from topics like isolation, worrying for relatives and friends, caring for a sick person, emotional distress from the increased uncertainty, among many others. Identifying different individual’s needs will allow organizations and leaders to tackle them in time and avoid major issues.
- Give the team tools to handle the new setup and adjust to the different needs: The intermix of private life and work-life can have a negative impact on individuals, varying from having to cope with new additional responsibilities like homeschooling, the inability to keep a work-life balance or the unintentional disclosure of private aspects of life that bring with them new fears of judgment from colleagues. Flexible working hours and clearer goals can be efficiently implemented for the first group, providing strategies to handle the balance (and the ability to handle mental-health topics) and ongoing monitoring that prevents the appearance of stereotypes or microaggressions can ensure a safe work environment for all.
As a conclusion, we strongly believe that diversity can be an advantage for any organization, both based on research and our own experiences at expertlead. This not only applies to regular business setups, but can also become a very valuable resource in uncertain times like these. It has positive impacts on a company’s culture, resources and business performance and should definitely be a key topic in any organization’s agenda. It was through leveraging our diverse teams that we managed to have no negative impact from the sudden remote setup; additional communication channels were up and running in no time; conflicts were rare and dealt with ease as our focus on a diverse company remained unaffected by the context; ideas led to new ways of dealing with raising topics; and overall team performance was maintained and even improved at all levels.
[i] Lorenzo et. al The Mix That Matters, BCG, April 2017 (https://www.bcg.com/publications/2017/people-organization-leadership-talent-innovation-through-diversity-mix-that-matters)
[ii] Rock, D. & Grant, H. Why Diverse Teams are Smarter, HBR, November 2016
[iii] Diversity wins: How inclusion matters, Mc Kinsey & Co, May 2020