Designing and implementing a Workplace Diversity Strategy can be a true hardship for HR and corporate management. On one side there are external and internal demands (legal, regulatory, ethical, etc.) to ensure fairness, respect and equal opportunities to each and every one of the “diverse” groups. On the other side there are traditional organizational and performance expectations that might clash with said demands.

Research attempting to clearly link business performance with diversity have so far been inconclusive, only proving that diversity has both positive and negative effects on productivity.

One could oversimplify the matter by saying that:

homogeneous groups tend to dialogue and move ahead more swiftly than highly diverse groups, thus inclusion of a diverse participation often results in slowing things down; yet the risk is to miss out on some alternative perspectives (comfort zone state);
diverse groups, by bringing alternative perspectives to the table, offer the potential to move the dialogue outside the known path, thus opening the door to more innovative ideas; yet the required investment of time and effort might be disproportionate vis a vis the expected gain (especially in the short term), resulting in unproductive frictions, inefficient reworks and confusion (panic zone state).

If this were all what needs to be said about it, and setting temporarily aside any external pressures, each organization could in principle make a “simple” executive decision to either

adopt a dedication to diversity based on the belief that it is ultimately right and useful; then weather the stormy period to get there; or
forget about it, continue as usual and hope that the process of demographic change will organically take care of itself, with each “minority” eventually “leaning in” to make place for themselves (no disrespect intended for the work of Ms. Sandberg)

The reality is a bit more complex. It has to do with human nature and the roots of our behavior. Understanding these roots is the key to a novel approach to dealing with diversities.

There are two important factors to consider:

We are programmed to perceive “different” – at first glance – as a “potential threat”; this is simply the initial rough check performed by one part of our brain. It is like: does this look/sound “known/familiar”? then ok, I am relaxed; “unknown/different”? Let’s stay guarded. “Guarded” might simply mean a need to be more attentive or curious. Unfortunately, what happens with our physiology (accelerated heart beat, higher blood pressure and increased blood sugar) may easily be misinterpreted so that in stead of becoming more attentive, we become defensive. Obviously, this usually triggers a defensive reaction of the other person, thus confirming that we are in a threatening confrontation.
On the other side, we are also programmed to feeling empathy for others, a trait observed not only in humans, but also in primates. This adds an unconscious discomfort towards our defensive reactions, sometimes softening our reactions, more often simply making us feel uneasily guilty; which further brings us away from being curious and open to the other.

Those who believe that things will take care of themselves, usually assume that when the different becomes more familiar (e.g. gradually more women will climb the ladder and various minorities will be in the open and lean in) our instinctive reactions will be more balanced. The issue with this “passive” approach is obviously that while we wait for things to change, we continue to accumulate experiences that reconfirm the “different=threat” patterns in our brain.

So how can we proactively re-train our brain to stay open, attentive and curious about differences? This question is the foundation of a Workplace Diversity Strategy that can really work.

We suggest these 5 steps:

ALIGN on INTENTION: include the Diversity angle in all dialogues around the company Purpose and make it a Shared Purpose. Think of Nike’s “everyone is an athlete” or Ikea’s “we create better everyday life for many people”. Encouraging a dialogue around “what does this mean for me as an employee in this company?” will naturally lead to how it is essential to understand, respect and accept the diversity of global customers and how internal diversity is a fundament of living their purpose.
INCLUDE AND AVOID CLUSTERS: based on a Shared Intention, encourage a dialogue around what unites, not what separates. Do not create “We vs. Them” programs (only for women) or Single Measures (% of minorities). Include as many differences as possible into your Diversity Index (compatibly with regulations), so that EVERYBODY, including the “dominant group” feels included (a white male in his own geography, can feel discriminated vis a vis black women of different geographies unless we include other less obvious considerations, like function, education, family, etc. so that you can have e.g. a white German expat single male with Marketing background with home office and e.g. a black local French female with 3 kids, engineering background and based at a plant).
INVEST TIME AND ACCEPT THAT THE START WILL BE BUMPY. Many a Diversity initiative fail because we look for quick fixes and short term results, then we experience the inevitable initial difficulties and get discouraged. Be clear upfront that there will be a learning curve.
INVITE PEOPLE TO TALK AND SHARE. There is nothing more “blocking” than to feel resistance towards a change without being able to talk about it and be heard, no judgment attached. Unexpressed “guilty feelings” often create resistance. Like for any changes, once we are allowed to talk about our difficulties, feel heard and not judged, it is easier to move on
PROVIDE TOOLS AND OPPORTUNITIES TO PRACTICE. Any opportunities to practice on subjects like “Dealing with Change” or “Crucial Conversations” or “Active Listening” are useful opportunities to learn how to build the confidence and courage to go out of comfort zone and embrace different perspectives. Then Diversity is taken care of itself and you build a more collaborative culture.

You may now ask: how about sanctions and punishment? So far we have talked about creating the right environment and means. But there is always a certain line that cannot be crossed; how far do we let the open dialogue go until we stop someone who is obviously using the opportunity to vent prejudice, racism or harassment?

In my view this falls into a slightly different camp. Organizations also need to be very clear about expectations. Too often do we see KPI based on the “what” needs to be achieved, forgetting that the “how” is part of internal expectations as well; behavior needs criteria too. But this is for another discussion.

Copyright © 2014 Laura Lozza

How can Grooa help you design Workplace Diversity Strategies that work?

We offer two opportunities:

Strategic Consultancy projects with our Coaching Consultants, to facilitate your dialogue and help you define the best approach for your situation
Team Workshops to learn how to Align and Open an Inclusive Dialogue