Despite being the #1 recruiting trend for 2018 for businesses, and despite decades of trying to improve workforce diversity demographics in the workplace, the commercial sector has made little progress. I believe this supports the theory that homogeneous workplaces are more the result of unconscious bias than a lack of awareness, policy, training or outright bigotry.
Even though there are few signs of statistical progress, the workforce diversity discussion seems to be moving on and evolving anyway. Specifically, it is exploring the question of why diversity matters at all, and what kind of diversity matters most when it comes to building an effective workforce. Will this different way of thinking about diversity make our organizations better?
In part, diversity discussions have extended beyond the social justice objectives of diverse workforce programs as research has found strong correlations between improved business results and diversity on teams, in leadership and in the workplace at large.
- Women in leadership correlates to greater business returns
- Racial and gender diversity of the workforce matters even more than gender alone
- Being around different kinds of people makes us all smarter
Research like this underlies a very strong business case for continuing to seek ways of building diverse workforces, not just because hiring women and minorities is “the right thing to do,” but also because it’s “good for business.” As the reasons for building a diverse workforce expand, so does the idea of what kind of diversity produces such improved results. Together, these trends generate new and better ways of thinking about diversity overall.
How is the workforce diversity discussion evolving?
Traditional definitions of diversity stem from the civil rights’ benefits of a workforce with diverse external characteristics like race, ethnicity and binary gender expression. Newer ways of examining the workforce diversity question, however, still reference these demographic categorizations (even though measuring and reporting them is seriously lagging), but are more motivated by the demands for employee populations to be innovative in order to keep up with the speed of disruption. This has given birth to new definitions of diversity itself, including experiential, age and cognitive (or thought) diversity.
New voices (especially Millennials) in the diversity discussion have noticed that groupthink and undynamic work cultures can persist even in externally diverse groups, potentially dampening an organization’s potential to respond creatively and quickly to external market changes. Thus the question has been raised, regardless of what the people around the table look like on the outside, is a team’s potential to respond innovatively more affected by what each participant carries on the inside? And does the company culture invite these inner strengths forward or shut them down (i.e., force people to “cover” aspects of themselves)?
These are deep and probing questions, that get closer to the issues of unconscious bias than the previous–externally motivated–discussions.
Leadership Perspective: Are Traditional Measures of Workforce Diversity Outdated? Yes and no… – Click to tweet
Should we expand our definition of workforce diversity?
In researching the wisdom of including aspects of personality, experiential and cognitive endowments in our workforce planning dialogs, I’m truly divided on whether we should rush to start adding these new dimensions of diversity into the discussion. This actually surprised me. I’m usually all for evolving ideas to keep up with the ever-zooming speed of change. To me, evolving and thinking differently about things always leads to better conclusions and results (which is what the pro-diversity research generally finds!) But it occurs to me that there could be a serious downside as well.
The upside of an expanded definition of diversity seems obvious if it can lead us to find sound business reasons to be even more inclusive of people who have been shut out of the system for demographic reasons. It could provide new ways to look at the perpetual “quota” problem, i.e., helping all demographics who feel discriminated against discover new pathways inside. For example, this approach gives us reasons to pursue budding trends towards greater inclusion for people regardless of military work history, marital status, genetic proclivities, personality type, gender expression and dis/ability status.
As the research above showing business benefits indicates, evolving our ideas about diverse workplaces provides individual leaders an expanded lens through which to examine their own leadership style, giving them a rational to find personal benefits in inviting everyone on the team (regardless of their race, gender or extrovertism) to participate fully in conversation and problem-solving. For organizations, it provides a new challenge for us to grow our leaders to become more aware of their biases and give them tools to challenge themselves to grow beyond them.
On the other hand, and this is my major hesitation, I am concerned that such an evolution has the potential to water down, if not shut down, efforts to pursue the social justice that is inherently buoyed within genuinely multicultural and gender-equal groups. I worry that by shifting the conversation to what we carry inside that makes us diverse, we may decide we no longer need to measure and strive for a workforce that looks diverse on the outside.
In a shift to redefine what a diverse workplace looks like, I worry that it will give the leaders who’ve made the least progress, and who are unwilling to to be introspective, an excuse not to take unconscious bias and workplace discrimination head-on. In short, I am afraid that headlines like “demographic diversity isn’t the whole picture,” could be read by some as a reason to step away from efforts to ensure that their workplaces aspire to simple civil rights for their employees.
I’m still exploring this topic, and will focus more in the future on the transformational leadership opportunities for us all in leading increasingly diverse workplaces. But until we see more introspection and willingness to address the reality of racial, sexual and ethnic bias, I think we should walk carefully into an expanded definition of workforce diversity, which includes the harder-to-see cognitive, experiential and dis/ability diversity. As we reframe the workplace diversity we seek, we must be vigilant and ensure that the discussion is an expansion, instead of an excuse to leapfrog, the harder cultural problems that obscure unconscious bias, racism, sexism and discrimination in our workplaces today.
What do you think about the changing-slowly face of corporate culture? Join the conversation about changes that will affect your career on LinkedIn to share your thoughts.
Get our free transformational leadership guidelines to help you empower diverse teams.