Many of our clients almost audibly wince when I start talking about Diversity. They gaze around the room in embarrassment, noting that it is made up almost entirely of one type of person: middle-aged, white, educated men. How, they think, can we talk about Diversity when we look as homogenous as this?
You won’t be surprised to hear, perhaps, that this is not a unique scenario. Most of the teams I work with are relatively homogenous. So it’s a relief (I imagine) to hear me say that although we might look similar, there are most certainly many ways in which we are different. This might be in the way we take in information (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic), the way we interpret information (coloured by the lens and filter through which we have lived), or the way we share information (verbal, nonverbal, written or visual). These basic differences alone will allow us to have valuable diverse perspectives and opinions.
We also know, of course, that even in a homogenous team it is often difficult to tap into the true thinking of another person. In a very corporate environment, for instance, people may never share what they really think, even when they are being asked to, out of fear of reprisal. How often have you pondered whether you should be truthful or ‘polite’ when it came to giving your boss feedback as part of a 360° assessment? How worried were you that, if you are too truthful, they might guess that it was you who submitted the feedback and be displeased?
So, what is the use of having diverse teams – those that pride themselves on the diverse backgrounds and genders that make them up – if there is not enough psychological safety and hence no real ability to benefit from the richness of that diversity of thought?
By now, therefore, the obvious answer to the question of how to benefit from the diversity of a homogenous team is: Inclusion.
If you’re in a truly inclusive team you will know it by the following signs:
- Every person in the team (and not just a few or even most) feels like they belong, that they can say whatever is on their mind, however silly, without negative repercussions to their careers. (Please note that this is not a blanket permission to say or do inappropriate things, as certain statements or behaviours will and should attract reprisals befitting of the offence!)
- The team starts noticing gradually that, in order to be even more collectively intelligent, it needs to further expand the diversity of the team.
‘But we’re already inclusive!’
I often hear clients say that there is no issue with Inclusion (or rather, lack of Inclusion) in their teams. They believe that they already have an environment where everyone feels psychologically safe to say what they mean. Sadly, that often does not reflect reality. I remember working with one such team, made up predominantly of men plus just 2 or 3 women. As we sat around a large boardroom table, a male member of the team shared this very sentiment, but when I looked around the room, I noticed that there were no nods of agreement coming from the women on the team. Instead, they averted their eyes and looked down towards their notes. Later in the day, when I managed to create a safe space for the workshop, one of the women spoke up and disagreed that all members of the team felt safe to speak their mind at all times. She also added that she also knew that one or two male members of the team felt similarly.
It’s easy to be open with those you consider your equal or those who you regard as peers. Consider whether you’d feel comfortable saying everything you wish to say when your boss is present. Also consider whether those who are from an underrepresented group feel that they can fully be themselves at all times. It’s often easier to be more empathetic with people who are like us, so you may wish to ask someone from an underrepresented group how they feel. Who knows, you might find out that your team is not as inclusive as it needs to be in order to truly benefit from every person’s thinking.
‘Surely, we don’t need to hear everyone’s thinking? My PA, for instance, attends our meetings to take notes, not to contribute!’
It might appear odd to ask a person who has a seemingly different role – like an admin assistant, a financial controller or a graduate trainee, for example – to contribute to the discussion. After all, they are unlikely to have the requisite knowledge or experience to contribute. Be that as it may, if we manage to create an environment in which everyone including the PA feels like they are invited to contribute, we might be surprised by what they have to say. In our meetings at Voice At The Table, for instance, our admin assistant contributes a lot of great ideas, despite not having any EDI experience. The whole point of Inclusion is to hear what diverse thinkers have to say, and that must include those whose role appears to sit ‘outside’ the actual team. So, in company workshops, I always invite people to hang their titles at the door and contribute on an equal footing with everyone else in the room, irrespective of seniority, age or any other type of societal hierarchy.
To truly benefit from the diversity of our incumbent teams – let alone those that are more diverse – we must first learn to tap into the thinking of each person around the table. Anything short of this will rob the collective intelligence of the team of its natural power. Each person is capable of thinking and has unique experiences to share – we would be missing out if we didn’t know how to make the most of the wisdom that is already surrounding us.