One of the more valuable lessons underscored in business school (which I finished last month by the way), was the value in questioning assumptions. For example, the perception that diversity programs are about legal compliance. While I’ve been in countless debates about the strengths and weaknesses of affirmative action (just one representation of such programs), the reality is that organizations that embrace diversity, rather than look at it as a check mark on a government form, gain a competitive advantage by creating an environment that allows all employees to contribute and grow.
Unfortunately, this part of the debate often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Now that we have elected a black President, I think it’s worth reflecting that diversity is not just “the right thing to do” but, in almost all situations, the better thing to do. Recruiting, retaining and motivating people of diverse backgrounds - whether that means race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, culture, age, language, etc. - can provide firms with competitive advantage in these ways.
- More accurate representation of customers leads to improved customer and client relations. Workplaces that reflect the customer base attract the attention of wider consumer segments at a time when once small niche markets are replacing long-time majorities. Companies that effectively employ people that share their customers’ demographics, capture and retain them through improved marketing messages and demonstration of understanding of their customers’ needs and wants.
- Different skills, values, and experiences means employees have a lot to learn from one another. Providing an environment where all kinds are welcome makes for a more open questioning and learning culture which, by nature, leads to innovation, improved professional growth and, by many standards, a more challenging and fulfilling place to work.
- Varying perspectives mean less group think and increased creativity. Studies show that diverse teams produce more innovative solutions to problems. Tackling an issue from multiple backgrounds and experiences ensures that groups look at more angles of the challenge, consider more consequences and explore more options for a path forward which in turn leads to better decision making. Consider this next time your weird colleague is driving you crazy. Look at Ideo’s staff as an example of this in practice.
- Adjusting to diversity encourages flexibility. The ability to balance different perspectives on a regular basis makes employees more open to constant change and nimble when business warrants it. And speaking of perspectives, from where I sit, getting used to adjusting one’s thought process is essential to productive critical thinking.
Many of these points come from a 1997 article from the Academy of Management called Building a Business Case for Diversity (pdf) by Gail Robinson and Kathleen Dechant.