As business leaders, diversity sounds really good to us in theory, but in practice, we're really bad at it. I know first hand how helpful having different perspectives can be in making business decisions, and I still have to work hard to walk my talk.
Creating diversity is about setting our teams and businesses up for success, but we can't do this without looking more deeply at why diversity is important, what it actually means, why it's so hard to create diverse teams, and what we as leaders can do to change this.
Why diversity is so important.
Diversity is important simply because it's the reality of the world we're trying to succeed in. When the teams in our organization are made up of people with the same backgrounds, the same sexual preferences, the same ages, the same viewpoints and so on, we create "echo chambers" that cause us to see the world -- and our customers -- through a narrow lens.
When we surround ourselves with people who are too similar to ourselves, we aren't exposed to the different perspectives that are required for questioning our assumptions, thinking about things differently, and innovating new approaches to effectively compete in our market and scale our business. But by creating diverse teams, we can better understand and relate to differences and strategize effective ways of reaching and serving a much broader customer base.
Rand Fishkin, founder of the well-known SEO platform, Moz, says, "The call of justice demands we work toward a more inclusive society, and that can start in our own companies. On the business side, we can see that diversity in all its aspects is correlated very strongly with company performance at the leadership-team levels, so there's also a strong bottom-line case for diversity."
What diversity actually means.
Just because you assemble a team of people with highly visible differences doesn't mean you have diversity. For example, say you assemble a team with a transgender person, a Hispanic person, an old person, a young person, and a person with a disability. While your chances are exceptionally high that your team is diverse, you can't tell by these differences alone.
Genuine diversity is not so much about outward, visible, or even lifestyle differences, but about bringing different (and often opposing) perspectives together. No matter how different people look or behave on the outside, if they all bring similar perspectives, you don't have the kind of diversity that drives innovation.
Why it's so hard to create diverse teams.
Speaking of stress, we tend to be big fans of diversity...until we're truly challenged by significant differences. The number one reason we're so bad at creating diversity is that differences that bump up against our deepest biases tend to make us very uncomfortable.
Though we may pay lip service to diversity, when push comes to shove, we tend to prefer to surround ourselves with people who think, look, and act similarly to ourselves. Though there's nothing inherently wrong with this, when we insist on these conditions, especially in our organizations, it's a surefire way to limit growth and impede innovation.
What's more, as leaders with so much on our plates, we can feel like creating a diverse team is an overwhelming ask.
Julie Austin, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, doesn't mince any words when she talks about creating diversity. "It's really effing hard. As leaders, we feel like, 'Running my business is hard enough, raising capital is hard enough, and now you want me to do this too?'"
How we can create more diverse teams.
Now that we have a better feel for why diversity is important, what it is, and why it's hard, we need some practical approaches for helping us overcome our "immunity" to creating diverse teams.
Beware of bias and defy your comfort zone.
To create genuine diversity, two mindset shifts need to happen. First, we need to become aware of and able to question our own biases. Second, we need to defy our comfort zone and actively expect, accept, and embrace perspectives that are not only different than our own but that we find personally challenging and unsettling. In short, we need to adopt the mantra of Michele Promaulayko, Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine, who has made it her personal mission to "get comfortable with being uncomfortable."
Commit to a hard line.
Sarah Hodges, a partner at Pillar PC says we need to "hold a hard line and take a stand" when it comes to creating diversity. "We need to say, 'We are NOT [failing at creating diversity], period, even if means the company needs to slow down, even if it means we're going to be late on delivering things, even if it pisses off our investor. We have to draw a line and say, that is it, this is what we're doing, even though it's going to be harder.'"
Change your recruiting tactics.
The name of the diversity recruiting game is how your business gets candidates to apply. A pool of diverse applicants is out there, but most businesses aren't casting the right bait in the right places for the kind of people they're trying to catch. Businesses need to recruit from unlikely sources, and Austin cautions that job postings with long lists of requirements or which contain words like "ninja" and "expert" will cut the number of female applications in half.
Cultivate a culture of psychological safety.
Patrick Campbell, founder and CEO of ProfitWell, is an example of a leader dedicated to diversity, and he emphasizes in Protect the Hustle that a culture of psychological safety is not about avoiding discomfort or challenge. Rather, it's about creating the conditions where there's enough respect and trust between people with different viewpoints that discomfort and challenge can be used to forge new understandings, gain new insights, and innovate accordingly.
To compete in a diverse market, businesses simply can't afford to make diversity an add-on or afterthought. Though creating a diverse team is difficult, the pay-offs in business performance and personal growth are worth it. Diversity is the principle that says when we're willing to struggle together in the service of solving a problem that is bigger than each of us, we generate more value for all of us.