You might have heard the news: Teams who have people from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and races tend to be more innovative and perform better, largely because differing perspectives bring lots of different ideas and considerations to the table. But if you want a diverse team where everyone feels included, you might be better off rethinking how much and the ways you talk about it.
A recent study by collaboration company Atlassian showed that most employees (80 percent) agree diversity is important and helps business outcomes. Yet, only 36-40 percent actually participate in conversations or working groups to improve inclusion at their businesses, and only 23-26 percent actually try to get leadership to create an environment that's more inclusive. Individual participation has gone down, not up, falling 50 percent year-over-year, and company initiatives also have flatlined. 40 percent of respondents think their companies don't need to improve representation of underrepresented groups, even though representation, retention and a sense of belonging in those groups remains below 30 percent.
One big reason for the lack of action might be simple fatigue. A famous marketing study by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper showed that, when people were given lots of jam choices, they didn't take action and buy. They were too overwhelmed from all the information and options coming in, so they did nothing. We might not be peddling preserves to workers, but the constant talk of diversity, including neverending ways to "fix" it, might be turning them off in a similar way.
So then what can we do differently?
Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Atlassian, outlined some strategies for how company leaders can bring up D&I without triggering a negative response. They suggest that part of the reason businesses haven't been able to avoid fatigue and apathy is that they've failed to make actionable plans based on the individual worker's perspective and authority level.
1. Stop talking about changing companies overall. "Company-wide change is too broad for most individuals to impact. Instead, we must give people actionable strategies to improve their teams. The team is a unit that an individual can understand and impact, and if each individual contributes to improving their team, the collective growth in all teams impacts the entire organization."
2. Make team-level improvements. "For example, educate employees about the fact that people from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to be interrupted in meetings or less likely to be asked for their expertise. To mitigate this, create a 'no interruptions rule' in your meetings, which benefits [everyone]."
3. Create a schedule for office housework (e.g., taking notes, scheduling). "These tasks disproportionately fall to underrepresented people, so making a rotation where everyone pitches in to accomplish these tasks will make the team more equitable."
4. Map out the ideal skillset for projects and compile a list of candidates from that profile, rather than assigning to the person who is top of mind. "Seek input from adjacent teams to come up with potential employees that might not come to mind immediately. This ensures that all people with the right skills are considered, instead of a select few who consistently receive highly-visual assignments, or are more social, and thus, stay top of mind."
5. Consider how small acts of kindness have a ripple effect. "The goal should be inclusion and belonging, and that benefits all team members. Having the psychological safety to dissent, being able to schedule around events for kids, spouses, or elderly parents, and having the ability to fail forward helps employees be more creative and more productive. By treating everyone with basic human dignity, we can increase the sense of belonging in our organizations."
Blanche points out, too, that the industry also needs to be better about collaborating. There's research to share from sources like Kapor Center and Project Include, for example. Companies also can do a better job using tools like Textio and HackerRank, which can help you avoid biases and attract a fuller range of candidates in hiring. Shifting from a "culture fit" interview to a "values aligned" interview, focusing on balance instead of increasing numbers and implementing policies like flexible work schedules are all actionable ways to embed D&I more deeply into an organization.
It's not just a D&I issue
While Atlassian's survey focused on diversity and inclusion, it reveals a broader communication and implementation problem within companies. If business leaders force a topic--be it D&I, #metoo, financial ethics or anything else--into discussion without empowering workers with on-the-floor-level ways to change, then broader change becomes much more difficult. Rather than being inspired and taking action, employees become tired, irritated and apathetic. This isn't to say that any of these topics don't deserve attention. They do. It's merely to say that targeted discussion, done at strategic intervals with greater clarity on what one person can do, might be a far better option than our current ambiguous and incessant default.