What should be seen as a business case and common sense turns out to be a long-lasting challenge for people and organisations
While differences have always existed in societies and certainly in business organisations, the phenomenon of diversity has become a disruptive force over the past 25 years. The end of the East-West-Divide, in combination with the emergence of the Internet, initiated not only the Third Industrial Revolution, but also a fundamental paradigm shift in the way many people live and work (together), at least in the Western world. Changes include an unprecedented growth in individuality (and hence diversity), a strong preference for multi-cultural environments (including the workplace), and multiple new ways of collaboration and communication. To that end, all levels of human cognition have been impacted, which provides huge opportunities for the business world but also challenges.
Reaping the disruptive value of Diversity
In order to realise benefits from diversity, the value-chain of Diversity & Inclusion needs to be managed carefully and ideally in a systematic way: Differences can only be turned into competitive advantage when openness prevails – individually and in the organisational culture – and inclusive processes, behaviour and communication are applied. The benefits of getting this value-creation process right have been proven by 205 robust studies portrayed in the International Business Case Report. Some studies highlight that in order for diversity to add value, a healthy conflict, e.g. through minority dissent, is required. This hint for existing challenges is only the tip of an iceberg, nowadays discussed under the headline of Unconscious Biases.
Hindering the productive disruption of Diversity
While the term ‘Unconscious Bias’ most often describes specific types of implicit associations, my analysis of existing research from the past decades suggests that it serves perfectly to describe six types of biases in three areas that have one thing in common: Making it hard for individuals, teams and organisations to tap into the potential of Diversity by consistently practicing Inclusion. The main categories of Unconscious Biases that are of immediate relevance to Diversity Management include personal / human preference for sameness, stereotypes about ‘others’, biased application of (theoretically) meritocratic processes, micro-inequities, unwritten rules in mono-cultures and the organisational preference that reproduces success types of the past. The dynamics can be observed on individual, process and organisational levels, and some biases stabilise each other in a way that makes mitigation a complex task.
Making Diversity & Inclusion work is complex
Over the past twenty years, a number of success formats dominated each of the different eras – each claiming to be the silver bullet everyone was looking for. In fact, the critical questions representing resistance against diversity, inclusion or both, have not changed much over the past decades. What’s in it for me? For the business? Why change in the first place? Is there any urgency at all? These and other common questions show quite clearly that a complex change strategy must be designed in order to nudge people and organisations towards overcoming initial and subsequent barriers, and gradually unleashing the power of differences. A combination of different change models has proven to be advisable: The generic trifold model of leadership, tools and cultural change serves as a backdrop against which more D&I specific approaches can be designed. The different types of Unconscious Biases provide another template for developing roadmaps. Multi-phase models for organisation development, such as Kotter’s 8 steps, make timing more effective. Finally, the value-creation model of D&I provides quality check points to know if your strategy will eventually lead to the desired benefits. One more thing still needs to be added to the complexity: Stakeholder management continues to be a challenge in many or most D&I processes. For the perceptions, personal convictions, needs and possibilities of different target groups and individuals within those target groups vary a lot.
Founder and Owner-Manager of European Diversity
VP of International Affairs, European Institute for Managing Diversity