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Building a diverse team- why it matters

May 18, 2021

Building a diverse team is good policy on all levels, but what does diversity mean to you? The most obvious answer might be around race and gender, or maybe also age and sexual orientation, but it goes a lot deeper than that. To say that our teams, companies and corporations should be reflective of this level of diversity is a given, and not up for debate, but we also need to talk about acquired diversity.

Inherent diversity is the things that are naturally basic to you, which covers the list above. Acquired diversity, however, is the things we pick up on life's journey. Our way of thinking and communicating, our values, cognitive flexibility, mindset, cultural fluency and a number of other attributes grow and develop from the rich, unique tapestry of our lives.

A study from Deloitte and BJKLI found that older generations tend to think of inherent diversity and issues like civil rights and equality when they talk about diversity. Millennials, who make up a great deal of the workforce, tend to see diversity as the full picture of acquired and inherent attributes. What is more, they largely see diversity as a must for effective teams and expect this in their work environment. Resilient, adaptable teams need diversity in its broad sense.

Building a diverse team is nothing without inclusion

Because "diversity and inclusion" are often found together in phrasing, people might assume they are the same thing. A Gallup poll found that there was a lack of understanding around this, and that it was essential to treat them separately. Diversity is just about hiring- who is on the payroll. If a company is only thinking about appearances and status, that is where they will stop, because inclusion is not about box-ticking. Inclusion takes work.

Inclusion means that everybody feels equally included and valued. There is a place for all voices, and there are structures to ensure that everyone can contribute in their way. See what we mean about inclusion taking work?

Managers need training in unconscious bias, to identify it, work on it and prevent it from making an impact on others. Managers and leaders build the culture, so getting their own house in order first is critical. You can try Harvard's own test if you are curious about it. In fact, Harvard found that employees working under a manager who exhibited unconscious bias performed much worse than they did under a manager who was inclusive. Just because you are blind to your bias, it does not mean others can't perceive it and feel it. Non minorities often feel "automatic inclusion" and so find it hard to understand that this is not automatic for everyone.

Differences among the team should be celebrated and supported. Should a team member be even subtly or subconsciously excluded because of their religion, political inclination, sexual preference, or cultural background, or should we focus our collaboration on valuing the person by the great professional impact he/she brings? You would think that the answer is quite obvious here, but we still believe there's a long way to go as some organizations still abide by non-inclusive practices that threaten diversity integration.

However, the optimist in us make us believe that efforts are slowly becoming more visible in the way of showcasing achievements from the whole team, bringing in diversity mentors, adding pronouns after our names on emails, or even thinking about the fact that certain colors on a PowerPoint presentation make it harder for someone who is dyslexic. Such actions help all of our team to know that they are seen and that they are included, and not an afterthought.

Real inclusion targets, proper training and reflection, open discussions and honest feedback, uncomfortable conversations, and painful growth. Inclusion takes work, but if you are serious about diversity, then there is no shortcut. Diversity is a sprint; inclusion is a marathon.

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Building a diverse team means building the strongest team

Do you want to be surrounded by people that look, think and talk like you? Great, then all you have to do is wait for human cloning to become legal, and you can get your wish.

For the rest of us, who want our teams to reflect the communities we serve, the good news is that diversity means strength. Have you ever said out loud "wow, I had never thought about it like that?". You can thank cognitive diversity for that one. Different experiences and cultures form different ways of thinking that can be absolutely invaluable for innovation, or even just thinking through a solution from all angles. Marc Hammana, cultural diversity and creative leadership coach told us that his work comes from "mining the gold" in diverse teams and finding the way to draw out people's unique strengths and show how valuable they can be. This doesn't mean throwing the Hofstede cultural calculator into a meeting, but really taking the time to think about how we hold space for people to contribute in ways we had not foreseen, and to make sure they feel supported to speak up. Cultures influence so much in us, from our relationship with time, the respect we have for "authority", or the individualistic versus pluralistic approach we take into every decision we make.

Cognitive diversity means eliminating the all-time-top-100 killer of creativity: groupthink. When an idea is proposed and the manager says "that will never work", cognitively diverse teams will raise the "it might if..." or "what about if we..." or "actually, I think there's something in this because..." contributions that just might change the game. Without inclusion, however, these contributions will never be vocalized. Cognitively diverse teams solve problems faster and, let's face it, are much more fun!

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Building a diverse team is building a stronger company

The evidence is clear. Companies that are culturally diverse and have balanced gender representation perform much better on average. We've actually taken note of that, and as much as we loved our power-women environment, we have brought a great addition to the team, who is a great balance to the previous all-ladies team at NEO. We couldn't be happier about having our Mark (not the other Marc in this article) in the team now!

Diversity leads to more profits, attracting more top talent and, as the World Economic Forum put it, "the business case for diversity is now overwhelming". But yet, we are still so far from getting it right. Diversity is not an automatic ticket to skyrocketing profits, and if this is your sole motivation for hiring this way, then please make sure you are last in the queue to be cloned.

It is inclusion that is the missing link. The real, hard work of looking in the mirror and confronting our implicit bias, blind spots and self-image. If inclusion feels easy, you're not doing it right. We all have a responsibility to make sure our team feel psychological security and to know that they have earned their place and are not just to showcase a company's diversity stats.

We also have to keep talking about it, normalizing the journey, without being performative. Sending an "Eid Mubarak!", "Happy Diwali", "Feliz Semana Santa", Happy Hanukkah!", "过年好 (Happy Lunar New Year)" or any other personalized greeting to your employees is great, but the real work is far deeper. Our world draws its strength, but also its beauty from diversity. Steel is a fusion of iron and carbon, and the most provocative art is a play of light and shadow. Diversity is the way the world works best, and those who truly embrace this will make it a better place on every level.

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