Diversity brings Stability and Innovativeness

    We have seen a lot of leaders challenging the notion of a diverse workplace due to some inbuilt perceptions. Recruitment gets put on hold for months together for a role that is classified as ‘diversity friendly’.   How often do we see colleagues squirming about ‘certain entities’ when it comes to recruitment?   Lots of HR folks complain that managers are finding it difficult to lead a diverse workforce and it gets worse if the teams are in different locations.  Far often than you wish you hear that there is a gender bias when it comes to compensation.

    Gear up, folks.   We live in a global workplace now and it is inevitable and unavoidable to have a diverse environment to work in, and it is imperative to adopt and welcome the diversity for one to be successful.  Managing diversity is a top KPI for every person now.  Everyone wants to do a stint abroad outside their home country to look good on their profile. 

   According to Wikipedia, diversity is used to describe “entities with members who have identifiable differences in their cultural backgrounds or lifestyles”.   University of Oregon mentions that “diversity encompasses acceptance and respect.  It means understanding that each individual is unique and recognition and exploration of these individual differences is key to nurture a safe and positive environment.  It is about understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual”.

     Given globalization and the breakdown of international borders in conducting business, every organization EXPECTS that there will be ‘broad based INCLUSION’ based on gender, race, color, religion and religious beliefs, national origin, ethnicity, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, social-economic status, gender identity, ancestry, ideologies or even veteran status, whether or not there are local laws supporting the same or legal acts specifying the same.   It is a consorted leadership effort in almost all successful organizations to have all forms of inclusive growth in their structural DNA, thus gaining confidence amongst its employees and stakeholders.   Every good organization strives to ensure that it is a SAFE environment for all employees to co-exist peacefully without fear of being ‘victimized’.   If such ‘hostile’ behavior against a group or an individual does exist, be it direct or psychological,  and is found to be deliberate, with the intention to ‘harm’ or ‘hate’, then such acts must be IMMEDIATELY dealt with to uphold the organizational value and integrity.  Learning to tolerate, accept and work with different types of people leads to a healthy workplace.  Remember all five fingers are of different shapes and sizes and the same applies to people.

     Treat everyone as an individual who is valuable to you and valued by the organization, instead of having a ‘blanket umbrella that is based on misplaced perceptions of certain entities’.  Compensate the employees proportional to the skills and values they bring to the organization.

    In a recent finding by MasterCard (“Connectors Project”), it was revealed that Indians face a greater bias on account of their gender, ethnicity and religion when it comes to getting a job or securing a loan.   A related study by Schick and Steckel (Dept. of Economics, Ohio State University) finds that tall workers do earn better than their shorter colleagues.  All these discrepancies are due to ‘perceptions’ that we form based on personal experience or observation.    By addressing this ‘push for diversity’, it is important to close this perception gap.

     This topic is mainly confined to organizations where success is measured by higher revenues, better products, being a leader in their field and happy employees. On the other hand, Government has to address diversity in a mandated way to uplift the portion of their population that is not ‘privileged by some criteria’.

     In India, there is ‘Unity in Diversity’.  India is one big family living harmoniously as one entity although there are many different religions and languages that comprise it.  India is a surprisingly stable country given its democratic nature of government, diversity, religious and cultural differences and the myriad of issues that inundate the news streams day in and out.   Moving from one state to another is difficult even for locals as the language differs.  Moving from one town to another town in the same state does not make life easier- the dialects are different. But a cohesive fabric, Indians have survived with all these differences for centuries now.  India even gave the world a woman Prime Minister in Indira Gandhi in 1966 whereas England had their first in 1979, Australia theirs in 2010 and US or Japan till now has not got a women President or Prime Minister. 

     Given my experience living in Canada for a few years, as a well-accepted immigrant of a beautiful country, it was hard for me to fathom the fight over two languages (English and French).  The cultural fabric is to engross in every Indian that despite the differences around, they chose to co-exist peacefully and been tolerant over the years – this is something I really feel every other country has to learn from India.   Differences exist but are carefully managed.

     At a high level, let us take the case of two countries, both developed and both an envy for other countries – one that thrives on foreign immigrants (heterogeneous teams)  that enables an innovative mindset, USA, and the other that is relatively more homogenous in population but revered for the quality of its products, Japan.   I would say the same thing about Bengaluru where more than 70% of the population is immigrants from other states, and hence the entrepreneurial culture is more distinct here, just like the best of the world comes out of USA.  I am not implying by any means here that being homogenous does not lead to innovation and being diverse does not produce good quality, but more a generic appreciation of what these countries are more known for.  Diversity definitely is America’s strength and all the major corporations like Intel, Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Oracle etc. have indeed a mix group of employees and were able to manage them well. 

    So, it is just not about diversity but also about proper diversity management that is instrumental for any successful organizations.   Having a diverse workforce brings in different set of values and views, based on where they come from, how they were raised, religious beliefs, personal and professional experience, family background and so forth, and it is imperative that a good manager to be able to hear all pertinent views and be able to make the best use of them to enable a productive environment.   Conflicts are healthy as long as they are managed well, and conflicts have to be constructively solved by having all the players on the table and combined reasoning taken forward keeping in mind the best for the organization.   After hearing all the views, it is great to arrive at a balanced decision and I am sure without these various perspectives, the options one may think of is limited. Non-obvious options that come out from diverse views are worth considering kindling creativity within the whole team, thus being able to translate to a competitive advantage.  Management must ensure that awareness is created to encourage these differences and to highlight the fact that we all get richer by these varied experiences.  As an example, if four people stand in four directions away from an asymmetrical building and are asked to describe it, they would come out with different descriptions of the same building depending on where they are standing – they would easily miss out what they cannot see. This is what I mean by ‘bringing in perspectives through diversity’.  Lots of management papers have been written highlighting that diversity does bring competitive edge to organizations – there is stability created in the organization due to a heterogeneous team.

    Although stability by itself does not lead to progress, proper management of a stable organization can prove wonders in productivity and innovation.  Pooling in a lot of ideas and funneling them properly does give every organization a rich set of options to ponder and invest.  Homogeneity must not be confused with monotonicity.  With segments like manufacturing which is very process intensive, it is better to be good at what you do and of course, you can do better than what you did through innovation in process.. But still at a higher level, manufacturing does look like a monotonous routine (I personally disagree though) –timesheets and prescribed output is sacrosanct.  Eating the same type of food every day does get boring after a while, does it not?     

   A few examples to show how diversity benefits:

  • For those addicted to cricket like me, the case of Indian Premier League’s success can be attributed to the fact that there are foreign players within each team and for youngsters who want to come to Indian cricket, this is a great chance to mingle with a few best in the world and gain from their experience.
  • Take the case of NBA, it got better over the years thanks to an influx of great players from Nigeria, France, Australia and even China.   People come to support them and they have managed to provide rich entertainment value.  The coach (“diversity manager”) decides whom to play or not, depending on who is in form and who can make a difference… he makes a call if Yao Ming plays for 2 mins or 40 mins for the good of his team.
  • Even farmers in India do ‘crop rotation’ in their fields, almost 3 to 4 times a year.  Depending on the season, and the best crop to plant and harvest, they make their decision. 
  • Andy Grove (Intel), Sergey Brin (Google),  Marcus Goldman (Goldman Sachs), Pierre Omidyar(eBay), Maxwell Kohl (Kohls) and  Jerry Yang(Yahoo!) are all few examples how USA adopts its sons properly by giving them the freedom and opportunity, and who in turn give it back to the society in terms of generating lots of jobs.

    It all shows that it does pay more to be GLOBAL than to be local, given the way business is run nowadays.   As a diversity manager, it would pay to bet on your top horse but you must definitely allow all your horses to run and compete equally to ensure there is a level playing field.  There can be positive surprises from unexpected quarters periodically.  Equal opportunity, which is the recruitment motto behind any US organization, is a much better choice than reservations and quota systems as this provides an unbiased platform for everyone to be hired in.

   Hiring the best out there is definitely more important than being diverse (for diversity sake) but the management has to consciously address diversity as part of their recruitment process.  Not recruiting some group due to generic perception problem is wrong – treat everyone as individuals first and then it is the management’s responsibility to address each individual’s integration into a diverse group.  Saying ‘(s)he does not fit in the group’ does not bode well for any management – this essentially means they have not done enough.   By not managing diversity properly, there is a direct cost escalation to the organizations that has been well documented by management researchers. 

     Being just diverse just for diversity sake is also a bad option – that means valuable time to recruit and to execute is lost.  Setting a diversity quota to meet annually is a bad move – only government can have ‘reservations’ to address some economic inclusions of certain segments of society.  Mandating certain things at the grass roots level by the government in providing compulsory education to all their citizens is definitely an ace above having reservation of jobs for certain segments of population. 

     If the organization does have a need to meet some diversity goals, it is better to select and train from within, rather than wait for the ‘right person to walk in’.  When expats usually get sent to other countries to maintain and impart the culture and values of the organizations, it is also imperative to have couple of potential candidates to coach and train to take over their role in couple of years, and it is a recommended practice to have a succession plan that is confidentially maintained but is being tracked from the first day of assignment.  

       To summarize, it is also about not letting your perceptions rule your decisions. It is not about just addressing diversity but also about managing them properly.  Any day meritocracy supersedes diversity.   Quality is needed to get the competitive edge and innovation is the key to attain leadership position.

Thanks to Manoj Vakeel for providing feedback after a detailed review, and to Malayala Manorama publications and University of Oregon websites for some reference data mentioned here. The author is a technology consultant,   and a soft skills and leadership trainer, based out of Bangalore, India.

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