These days it’s difficult to pick up a leadership journal or attend a leadership conference without seeing headlines about diversity & inclusion. We know it’s important and most healthcare organizations have formal initiatives of some sort aimed at improving diversity.
The thing is, much of the diversity & inclusion movement focuses on visible and easily measurable diversity. Race, gender & sexual orientation are by far the most common. Studies typically look at the overall demographics in employees….or the number of women and minorities on boards and in upper management. These results are then used as evidence of diversity – or lack thereof. But where many – dare I say most – leaders fail, is in encouraging and supporting people who THINK and BEHAVE differently from the organizational norms and the status quo. They make some progress on improving representational diversity but don’t actually make an effort to foster inclusion.
This week’s blog is about the importance of surrounding yourself, as a leader, with people who think and behave differently, rather than being satisfied with broad numbers that show increasing employee diversity. While there’s obviously a moral obligation to improve diversity, my argument today is mostly about the business imperative for leaders to more broadly embrace diversity and inclusion.
Understanding diversity and inclusion
It’s always good to start with a definition – clarifying the “terms of engagement.” These definitions are taken from the Office of Diversity at Ferris State University.
Diversity “…is the range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.”
Inclusion “…promotes and sustains a sense of belonging; it values and practices respect for the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living of its members.”
Many leaders stumble (or fail entirely) in one or both of the following ways.
First, they don’t realize that diversity includes values, beliefs, mindset and other attributes (physical, mental, sociological, psychological etc.) For example, building diversity includes welcoming people with different psychological attributes such as introversion/extroversion and preferences for analytical vs relational approaches. This “cognitive diversity” is broadly overlooked.
Second, there’s a huge difference between having diverse representation and actually valuing participation and input from different voices. Too often, employees who are very different in one or more ways are forced to embrace the dominant culture in order to fit in and be heard. This can be particularly true for developing leaders who are trying to advance in a leadership structure with strong cultural norms. Employees want to make a meaningful contribution but often don’t feel able to be themselves and speak openly.
Our current systems actually support exclusion and conformity
Despite the many explicit initiatives aimed at increasing diversity, there are many intrinsic biases, practices and processes that actually support exclusion and encourage conformity.
We prefer working with people who are like us. Most leaders mean well and try to do the right thing, but intrinsic human nature factors and historical organizational practices can combine to prevent diversity & inclusion. We like to surround ourselves with people who are like us. It’s just human nature. Leaders are no exception and tend to “…promote people who we feel comfortable with, and often that is people who are like us.” Unfortunately, that gets organizations more of the same at a time where healthcare, in particular, needs radical new ideas and innovation.
We’re more likely to listen to people who are like us. I’ve watched this in action too many times to count. Great suggestions from people who aren’t part of the “in crowd” get ignored (until someone from the “in crowd” speaks up with the same idea.) From a leadership perspective, senior leaders are more likely to listen to other senior leaders. Doctors are more likely to listen to other doctors.
Typical hiring processes implicitly favor people who “blend” in with the corporate culture. Diversity is good because it exposes organization to different ideas and opportunities – but then we go out and look for people who conform. For instance, it’s tough for a thoughtful, analytical, introverted candidate to get past the HR screening interview unless they’re adept at adopting behaviours that are more aligned with the mainstream ideas of what a “good employee” looks like (smiling, energetic, social…). Women can struggle to impress a largely male interview panel without presenting themselves with “expected behaviours.” While some alignment with organizational culture is important, hiring only people who “fit” with the existing mindset just perpetuates the status quo. Cognitive bias in recruiting typically results in homogeneous teams that aren’t very flexible, innovative or good at out-of-the-box thinking.
Speaking out is uncomfortable and risky in most organizations. If you’ve ever sat in a leadership meeting and listened to someone expressing the lone dissenting opinion, you’ll know what I mean here. Unless there’s some supportive/encouraging response from the meeting chair or other participants, disagreement becomes increasingly scarce until it eventually stops. Many leaders see disagreement within the team as a problem. Yet there is all kinds of evidence that shows for diversity & inclusion to thrive, employees and leaders need a safe space to speak out.
Most leaders don’t really like people who challenge them. While many leaders understand the importance of consulting broadly, they want it to happen in a controlled way. Soliciting formal input is safe…but having someone disagree with you publicly challenges many a leaders’ self-image of being always right. But, really effective leaders like people who challenge their thinking (respectfully of course) because they know it leads to better decisions in the long run. We need others to help us push boundaries and challenge our narrow view of any situation. Even when a leader does have all or most of the right answers, not being able to contribute/participate can be very demoralizing to the rest of the team.
One of the most difficult things for most leaders to do is to admit that they don’t have all the answers. Yet, when we learn to listen to those around us, we can make more informed and ultimately better decisions. When the people around us bring different life experiences and ways of thinking to the table, there’s an increasing richness to the conversations that happen – but only if the leader has the confidence and skill to nurture and learn from these diverse perspectives.
Diversity in our employees and leadership team is good because it makes us better…and our organizations more successful. In the words of Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity and Belonging, Aubrey Blanche. “Instead of positioning myself as someone who knows everything, I have to be relentlessly curious about other people’s perspectives…”
This article was written by Renate Ilse and published on the leadership blog at Ilse Zorn & Associates.