THE BLOG
11/26/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

The Diversity Deficit

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Diversity is a concept that persists in the daily lexicon of the press and in the narrative of organizations. A concept akin to a green ant -- gently nipping away at the top layers of the skin and trying its very best to get to the core! From the business Secretary in the UK, Vince Cable, stating that there is a "diversity deficit" in our boardrooms to the recent slate of tech and e-commerce giants who admitted to a diversity deficit amongst their workforce, diversity is a concept that has become interwoven into the very fabric of our daily lives.

Diversity is often seen as a problem for global business leaders -- either because leaders in mature markets driven by compliance are experiencing 'diversity fatigue' or, leaders in emerging markets don't always believe diversity is 'relevant' to their context. And then, there is the name! Diversity is a word that often draws negative connotations with some even calling for a name change so that the concept looses the shackles of its pessimistic undertones.

So where does diversity currently stand? Inherent within the rapid increase of globalization are factors such as the diversity of stakeholders that global leaders need to engage with and, a transforming global workforce that leaders need to connect to. In this context and in the pursuit of organizational effectiveness, leaders are beginning to accept their responsibility for the need to embrace diversity.

However, diversity remains stuck in a time warp. A time warp in which organizations continuously choose to focus their diversity efforts on one strand of diversity: demographics. In particular, gender diversity! As a woman you might ask yourself 'why I am critical of this focus'? I'm not. I simply believe that in addition to gender, there are many more major areas to which diversity can contribute significantly. Areas such as innovation, collaboration, agility, customer-centricity, and well being etc. Areas, where diversity has the capacity to deliver enormous business and social benefits.

The scope of diversity has to be broadened, reframed and updated to meet the demands of 21st century realities. It simply cannot be positioned, facilitated or implemented solely from a platform of identity. When diversity is seen from a 'big picture' perspective then it is acknowledged as being vital to global growth, sustainability, equitable society and maintaining strategic advantage. It actually represents a huge commercial opportunity, but only if it is correctly understood and managed with this purpose in mind.

From 2007-2012, I conducted a global research study with senior leaders from seven multinational organizations. Each organization represented a different sector and each organization had operations across at least three continents. The findings emanating from this study strongly suggests that as an activity, diversity needs to be better integrated, and that the purpose of diversity needs to be underscored by strategic focus. Critical to this purpose and focus I proposed three key dimensions of diversity: structural diversity, cognitive diversity and behavioral diversity.

Structural diversity are the demographic and systemic differences (i.e. structure, processes and systems) in an organization that encompass all elements of the whole system and serve to facilitate the embedment of diversity. Interpreted in another way, structural diversity promotes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For instance, there should be a focus on all aspects of diversity such as age, ethnicity, physical ability, religion, sexuality and gender. With regard to structure and policies, how do hierarchy and bureaucracy or networks and ecosystems inhibit or facilitate innovation and risk-taking? How do our recruitment and retention or talent management processes contribute to a more diverse community? And what are the systems that can help to facilitate a sustainable learning and collaborative environment?

Cognitive diversity is the different ways in which people think. As individuals, we have different ways of perceiving, reasoning, processing, reflecting, and interpreting. These different ways of thinking inevitably impact on activities such as problem solving, decision making, learning and planning. The way we think individually, and as a collective, will inevitably impact the way our organizations and communities innovate and create. And let us not underestimate, how different ways of thinking impacts on business results in terms of increased market share, productivity, engagement and social well-being. Plus, if we pay attention to the different ways in which we think as an individual then we become more in tune with our own thought processes and biases and flexible in our appreciation of others ways of thinking so that the very act of thinking becomes more opaque.

The last in the trilogy of my diversity dimensions is behavioral diversity. Behavioral diversity is the different ways of behaving. Through our unique cultures and heritage, socio-economic backgrounds, experiences and our values and beliefs we all demonstrate behaviors that are distinct to us. And even when at times an individual attempts to veil his or her behaviors in order to be accepted as part of a dominant group, ultimately, these behaviors leak out. Further, depending on whom we are speaking to or the situation that we are in, we will at times, adapt and flex our behavior to suit the context.

Behavioral diversity is evident across a plethora of important organizational and community day-to-day activities. For example, cross-cultural communications, conflict resolution, cultural and behavioral change management and the management of power, politics and justice and therefore must be considered a central part of diversity.

It is imperative that these three dimensions of diversity receive equal attention when developing and implementing our diversity strategies. Further, to build and embed this expanded focus of diversity into organization and community systems, it is essential that foundational behaviors and actions are put in place. Drawing on a metaphor of a tree -- a tree cannot produce fruits if the soil is not tended to so that the roots are strong and healthy and go on to produce and bare fruit. And so it stands for diversity -- there are behaviors and actions that must be at the root of our diversity strategies and efforts. These behaviors are inclusion, engagement, collaboration and strategic alignment. I wrote about these behaviors and actions in my previous blogs: 'Inclusion, Engagement, Collaboration - An Inconvenient Truth?' and, 'Hellooooooooooooooo STRATEGY!'

Turning our attention as to why in these times of rapid globalization we seem to be making such slow process when it comes to driving diversity there are many factors that inhibit the spirit of diversity from becoming a routine part of our everyday lives and these factors stem from 'fear'. Fear of losing power, status, and rewards. Fear of competition. Fear of risk-taking. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of freedom. Until we bury our fear and empower ourselves, our organizations and our communities are in severe danger of dismissing new ways of thinking, behaving and doing. A new spirit has to evolve. A spirit that is aligned with my definition of diversity: "diversity is the value added from different ways of doing, thinking and being". Even more radical -- brace yourselves -- perhaps rather than focus on the word 'diversity and inclusion' let us move towards a more positive and dynamic name for diversity - "integration and inclusion".

Leaders, as the architects of your organizations, and citizens, as the stewards of our communities it is our inherent duty of care to position, facilitate and embed diversity into the DNA of or our organizations and communities. The diversity deficit must becomes a thing of the past (and going out on a limb), perhaps we need to encourage a permanent state of tempered radicalism. A state that takes a long-term perspective rather than a short-term one. A state that focuses on customers and stakeholders rather than solely on shareholder returns. A state that has an architecture that stimulates adaptability and agility as opposed to control and rigidity. A state that encourages co-creation and collective wisdom rather than operating from an individual platform. A state that encourages innovation attracts talent, stirs passion, breeds productivity, and foster engagement. A state that depletes and erodes the diversity deficit.