There has been a big call for diversity within the workplace in the past decade. Experts, researchers and professionals touted the benefits and advocated for diversity in the workplace.
Here is a small sampling of diversity research that has shown the benefits of a diverse workforce. In 2015, a McKinsey report1 found that ethnically and racially diverse leadership teams were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry average. Research2 has also shown that diversity breeds innovation, where companies with more women are more likely to introduce radical new innovations into the market. Another study3 also suggests that diversity disrupts conformity and encourages deliberation, helping teams focus on facts.
To reap the benefits of diversity, you need to look beyond the demographic composition of your workforce. Diversity alone does not make a difference. To harness the benefits of diversity, you need to cultivate inclusive practices in your organisation. Inclusive practices can range from enforcing work policies to organising training and hiring a Diversity & Inclusion Consultant to provide guidance. However, before delving into the “how” of harnessing diversity, we need to first understand "why" diversity and inclusion can be a struggle to cultivate in the workplace.
The Struggles of Diversity
A workplace with mixed racial, gender, religion, age, etc., poses a struggle for each person within the organisation. Yet, these are the very same people who are required to practice inclusion. If their personal struggles of diversity are not addressed, requiring them to practice inclusion will be ineffective.
What might some of these diversity struggles be?
Discomfort in Diversity
It is human nature to feel safe and comfortable in our own tribe. Our tribe knows us well, and we know its members well too. We accept the rules of our tribe, and in return, the tribe welcomes, shelters and protects us. We have a place to belong.
When we leave our tribe to be among people from other tribes, we will naturally feel discomfort. We don’t play by the same rules or speak the same language. We don’t know how others think or feel. We may make mistakes and offend others, accidentally break trust and destroy relationships without realisation.
This discomfort may drive us away from foreign experiences and people searching for and hanging out with similar people in a diverse environment. This is why we see students from the same country have meals, study and live together in overseas universities. Or expatriates living in similar neighbourhoods, dining in similar restaurants, cafes and bars. Or employees converse in their native language when the lingua franca is in another language.
It takes less effort to converse and behave around people from our own tribe. It takes infinitely more effort and energy to observe, learn, navigate, practice, and make mistakes among different people. This additional effort to understand and fit in makes diversity uncomfortable.
Fit In or Leave
The need for acceptance and the fear of rejection is fundamental to human survival. When a specific cultural norm is established in the workplace, there is an expectation that new employees are required to “fit in”. The act of fitting entails changing one’s dressing to speech and even personal values and beliefs.
The dark side of “fitting in” is that one may need to suppress emotions and personal expressions. Trying to “fit in” also means denying or concealing one’s identity. A famous American animation studio, Pixar4, released a viral short story of a ball of pink yarn named Purl. Purl was hired into a fast-paced, high energy start-up, where Purl needed to “fit in” to be accepted.
📹 by Pixar
Purl’s story has a happy ending. Unfortunately, if these issues are left unaddressed, the talents and experiences of employees, like Purl, will not be realised. When such pressures continue to exist, people will become disengaged, demotivated, and eventually leave.
Concealing One’s Stigma
Not everyone can fit in, especially when it goes against their personal identity, values and beliefs. Research5 has shown that if you cannot be yourself, it will negatively affect your self-esteem and overall well-being.
However, if people choose to be themselves, they may encounter social exclusion, harassment and even discrimination. For example, research6 shows that gay men are victimised more than other sexual minorities, and more than half have experienced verbal harassment.
The threat of being criticised or abused creates an unsafe work environment for people with stigmatised identities. They face a difficult dilemma between tolerating discrimination against themselves to maintain their livelihoods or protect their dignity and risk tarnishing their careers. If unsafe and toxic environments continue to be unchecked, the psychological well-being of your employees will suffer, and so will the company culture.
Harnessing Diversity to Make a Difference
Becoming aware and identifying the struggles of a diverse workplace is only the first step in harnessing its benefits. Apart from relying on the expertise of your diversity officer, below are three ways in which you can start practising inclusion immediately.
The best place to start demonstrating diversity and inclusion is at the leadership level. A global analysis by Credit Suisse7 indicates that organisations with one female board member saw higher net income growth and return on equity compared to company boards without women.
Making diversity and inclusion a priority is not just about ensuring the leadership team has gender parity or racial diversity. Leaders need to advocate and demonstrate inclusive practices and recognise and reward others who are champions of inclusion.
With advocacy, leaders raise awareness of the struggles of diversity and the benefits of inclusion. When leaders demonstrate inclusivity, it signals to the entire organisation and the business community that this issue matters and encourages others to follow. When leaders make Diversity and Inclusion a priority, the organisation will slowly but surely embody it in their culture.
For any effective change of behaviour to occur, there first needs to be awareness, which can be raised by leadership making diversity a priority. To make diversity a priority, learning within the organisation must take place.
Learning can take on many forms, such as training programmes, books, videos, podcasts, even a coaching conversation with a manager. Learning provides individuals with openness to different mindsets, the embodiment of inclusive principles and specific tools to address diversity struggles and incorporate inclusive practices in their lives and work.
If you are on the lookout for programmes, you can consider training such as unconscious bias, empathy, perspective-taking, gender equality, racial diversity, supportive communication, inclusive leadership and much more.
Understanding the specific issues faced by particular social groups can be a challenge. While we can practice empathy, there are particular group issues that we cannot entirely comprehend. For example, it requires an abundance of courage for a person with a homosexual orientation to reveal their true identity to their loved ones and peers. A person with a heterosexual orientation may empathise but may not completely understand the underlying fear of rejection, low self-esteem, sense of isolation, etc. As such, forming peer support groups within your workplace will help your employees address and manage issues when they arise.
While peer support groups may seem counterintuitive to cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace, these groups help address the individual’s struggles of fitting in, and the stigma faced because of one’s identity. Some benefits of forming peer support groups include
- Meeting others who speak the language and who do not judge.
- Receive advice and learn from others who have gone through the same challenges.
- Learn and apply tools that help their peers to address and manage struggles.
Ready to make a difference?
Everyone in the organisation needs to be aware and play their part in cultivating an inclusive workplace. This starts from identifying the struggles of a diverse workplace, putting plans in place and taking concrete action to embody the inclusive values and practices. It is not an easy task. However, all the hard work and effort will be incredibly beneficial for your people and the organisation in the long run.
- Hunt, V., Layton, D., & Prince, S. (2015). Diversity Matters. McKinsey & Company.
- Taylor & Francis. 2020. Gender Diversity Within R&D Teams: Its Impact On Radicalness Of Innovation. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.5172/impp.2013.15.2.149
- Ethnic diversity deflates price bubbles. Sheen S. Levine, Evan P. Apfelbaum, Mark Bernard, Valerie L. Bartelt, Edward J. Zajac, David Stark. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2014, 111 (52) 18524-18529; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1407301111
- Lester, K. (2019, February 4). Purl | Pixar SparkShorts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6uuIHpFkuo&feature=youtu.be
- Ryan, W. S., Legate, N., & Weinstein, N. (2015). Coming Out as Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual: The Lasting Impact of Initial Disclosure Experiences. Self and Identity, 14(5), 549–569. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2015.1029516
- Herek, G., 2008. Hate Crimes and Stigma-Related Experiences Among Sexual Minority Adults in the United States. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24(1), pp.54-74.
- Credit Suisse. 2020. Large-Cap Companies With At Least One Woman On The Board Have Outperformed Their Peer Group With No Women On The-Board By 26% Over The Last Six Years, According To A Report By Credit Suisse Research Institute.