“Diversity and Inclusion” is a bit of a buzzphrase that you hear a lot about in many circles, all the time these days.  So I started thinking: what does “Diversity and Inclusion” (D&I) really mean?  Why does it seem so important to organizations? Is D&I always a good thing?   To begin, instead of defaulting to the usual Wikipedia/Google/Bizdictionary, I thought I would take a different approach and start with, “What is the ‘opposite’ of Diversity and Inclusion?”  When we want to learn about something or develop ourselves, we can often look for good examples to emulate, and what “not-so-good” looks like to contrast and avoid.  The opposite of Diversity is homogeneity; if we are not diverse, we are all the same.  And what about Inclusion?  Exclusion, of course.  Putting the two together, if we are all the same and exclude everyone who is not like us, that is pretty much the opposite of Diversity and Inclusion.

So what?  The obvious place to start is relative to impact on organizations or business impact.  Expanded work force and talent pool, plus innovation and productivity are often cited as key benefits of D&I.  Nice.  We can probably even extrapolate some concrete numbers fairly easily from those, especially on the productivity and innovation side of things.  More on that a bit later.  Then what about the cost of a lack of Diversity and Inclusion?  Some research that I have found includes numerical data like “gender-diverse management teams generate a 48 percent higher operating margin.”  Wow!  Or how about “companies that utilize both ‘inherent diversity’ (such as race, gender, and religion) and ‘acquired diversity’ (including cultural fluency, gender smarts, and generational savvy) are 70% more likely to have a new idea implemented.”  Then without D&I, only 30% or less of new ideas happen and we are leaving half of our operating margin on the table. There’s no bones about it, D&I requires our attention as leaders and can deliver big on the results side.

Yet, could there be a flip side?  How would things turn out in an organization with a workforce that has significant differences in ethnicity, race, religion, gender and other individual traits, yet has a culture that does not support tolerance and acceptance of differences?  Hmmm.  Diversity by its nature comes with natural barriers to communication including filters for language, ethnicity, age, gender and even a side order of generations thrown into the mix.  What about doing some ‘diversity and communication training and development’? Would that help to solve some of that negative side effect?  The answer is “it depends.”  It depends on how the development sessions are being delivered, the target audience, the leaders’ perspective, and a whole host of additional key inputs.

There’s no bones about it, D&I requires our attention as leaders and can deliver big on the results side.

The most powerful work done in these areas helps people to shift their perspective, often by using stories to increase awareness and the natural empathy we feel when we really understand and care about another person’s experience. Essentially, these sessions often help us to put ourselves in their shoes. We want to help, to make it different, better. And then back in the workplace the swarm of everyday activity takes over and this awareness, while sincere in the moment, goes to the background.  To move beyond this change inertia, this awareness must be matched with not only knowing, but practicing a new way of being. Not only in the session, but also in having an ongoing practice that keeps this alive everyday.

Missing here also, a very key point, is the fact that when a company becomes more diverse, it changes the relationships and the ecosystem of the workplace.  Any type of change causes stress among employees, which stresses relationships, impacts morale, impacts work roles and processes and bottom line results.   It goes without saying then that a well thought out, well-planned, well-managed, and well-supported approach is necessary to avoid the negative side effects of diversity and to get to those exciting benefits that D&I can deliver.  Shift perspective, shift behaviour and practice until the new inclusive behaviours become the norm. This is leveraging a performatory development approach to make lasting shifts in behaviour, not just in theory.

Shift perspective, shift behaviour and practice until the new inclusive behaviours become the norm.

To wrap up this opinion piece, rather than reference obvious examples of “Diversity and Inclusion” (or lack thereof), that we can see so blatantly in the world today I want to bring it back to a personal level.  Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Ashley Berg Jensen from Coca Cola talk about “Cultivating a Culture of Inclusion” in a global organization.  I believe that she summed it up so simply: “Diversity is about differences; Inclusion is about valuing those differences.” And then, up on the screen with a video from the early 70’s showing a very ‘diverse’ group of people in all shapes, colors, sizes, from all over singing “…I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony…”  holding and swaying with their bottles of brown sugar water!  How does that make you feel?  If you have no idea what I am referring to then you are one of a unique few in the world (See the video here). An interesting example of living D&I, and backing that up with bottling plant operations and marketing in almost every country in the world employing all ages, races, genders, sizes and shapes. I guess then it is not just knowing about D&I, or having more D&I in your life or organization, it’s about living it, practicing it, breathing it, and feeling it.

  • How are you valuing your differences and those of people around you?
  • What does it look like when differences are valued?  What about when they are not?
  • How can you and those around you be more aware about whether we collectively are valuing differences and genuine inclusion of others vs just focusing on the differences?
March 28, 2017 • in Opinion
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