Diversity Is Necessary, But Not Enough.

Many leaders* are recognizing the significant hard and soft business return on investment (ROI) of employing a diverse workforce, understanding that the best talent comes in a lot of demographics and thus your only way to get the best people available to you is to be open to recruiting lots of different kinds of people. To compete and have the strongest workforce in your industry, that diversity is essential.

Mere diversity, however, falls short. The bigger ROI of diverse talent lives in INCLUSION. Not just getting the best talent, but building and sustaining a culture that supports and rewards the representations of diversity in your population is where that diverse talent really flourishes and pays off. With a wider spectrum of perspectives — be they by virtue of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, education, socioeconomic status, religion, physical ability, or many others — you increase your potential for creativity in collaboration, and better solutions. But that doesn’t come just by having many kinds of people in the building. Those people have to know that what’s different about them is part of their value — part of their competitive advantage. They will only know that if you prove it, consistently.

There are many tactical ways that you can demonstrate that you value variety, from the people and achievements you celebrate publicly to the way you structure your meetings. Specifically, here are some key techniques:

  • Structure work to be a combination of individual contribution and collaborative group projects. Individual work is important to establish ownership and assess individual performance, but the combination of / exposure to people with different backgrounds, experience, strengths, and approaches is essential to reaping the benefits of diversity.
  • Keep the groups small. According to research, the ideal group size is 5-6 people.** From 1-5, the net gain of each additional person is greater and greater, without additional effort from each person. Past that point, however, there is an observed drop in effectiveness — partially from “free riders,” but it also causes “white flagging,” where an individual team member may self-identify as an outlier and self-limit their contributions to the group. Teams often lose access to that dissenting voice that comes from their heterogeneity when they get bigger than 6.
  • Mix up your team combinations. There is stability and comfort in working with the same group of people over time, but again it will eventually limit exposure to new team dynamics, new ways of thinking, and new combinations of strengths that yield the best solutions. Play with the timing of your changes to find the right balance, but don’t just pick once and settle in.
  • Make space to participate quietly. Many team meetings are formatted without much deliberate structure, or where a topic is led and a discussion ensues. This favors folks in the room who hold formal or informal power or authority — whether it’s because they’re extroverts, or because they’re cisgender straight white men. To make space for the other folks in the room, you can take advantage of more deliberate and structured approaches. Examples include opportunities to contribute ahead of time, or turn-taking. Also make space for reflections and follow-up after the meeting, when folks have had time to process outside the action.
  • Don’t stop coming up with ideas when you find one you like. The first suggestion in the brainstorm might sound really awesome, and in the end you very well may pick it as the path forward. But invest some additional time to coming up with other ideas. This is a classic creativity exercise, but it also makes space for people who won’t assert themselves as the first to speak, or who like to process first. In fact, you can combine the previous bullet with this one by giving everybody five slips of paper or sticky notes to each come up with five different responses/solutions, and then share all of the outcomes together. Folks can even read the notes themselves and mark them with a dot to indicate that they think it’s a good idea.
  • Celebrate the outliers and elevate their visibility. Let’s say you’ve done the above exercises and there are clusters of ideas. The tendency is to say “we have a lot of X response, let’s go with that.” Instead, make a deliberate effort to emphasize the ones that only come up once. It may not be the “right” or “best” solution, but praising its uniqueness will encourage people to be bold in their contributions and follow the thoughts that only they can contribute to the room.

I would love to hear your reactions, so please comment below! Have you used these before? If so, how have they worked? What other strategies have helped you or your team celebrate difference and empower the full diversity of your team?


*I say “many” here because there are plenty of organizations with a leader who genuinely believes that their diversity problem is because their organization is a “true meritocracy” and that only people who look like him (it’s usually a “him”) can give him what he and his organization need.



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