Achieving workplace diversity through Design Thinking

Using human centred design to foster inclusion and overcome resistance to change

Diversity defined

Diversity can be defined in different ways. For Barak (2016), workforce diversity relates to visible or invisible group belongingness and thus being different from the so-called mainstream. He groups definitions into three categories:

  1. The narrow category-based definitions tend to be derived from discrimination legislation, defining workforce diversity in terms of gender, different backgrounds and age groups, and having different physical abilities and sexual orientations (Muller & Parham, 1998).
  2. In contrast to that, a broad category-based definition extends the focus to any perceived difference between individuals, introducing broader categories such as profession, location, lifestyle, or position (Dobbs, 1996).
  3. Other scholars (Jimenez-Cook & Kleiner, 2005) emphasize that organizations should be driven by the needs of a diverse range of individuals comprised of different life experiences, cultural backgrounds and learning styles. This points to the definitions based on conceptual rule, which especially involve processes of recognizing differences through actions (Grant & Kleiner, 1997).

In that sense, “diversity should be understood as the varied perspectives and approaches members of different identity groups bring to the workplace” (Gorman, 2000, p.9), which extends our focus to the topic of inclusion and accommodation of a wide range of individuals in the organization.

Inclusion defined

Inclusion can be defined as “a person’s ability to contribute fully and effectively to an organization” (Roberson, 2004, p.215), by enabling and valuing the contribution of every individual, thereby focusing more on the individual level, and less on organizational structures (Hanappi-Egger, 2012).

In the context of people with disabilities, inclusion means that organizations need to respond and adapt to the various accommodation and assistance needs of these individuals (Remke & Risberg, 2012).

Often, people with disabilities face stigmatization or other forms of discrimination (Goffman, 1986). This necessitates the inclusion of these individuals at the workplace even more, by making them feel welcomed and valued, appreciating what they bring to the organization (Nafukho et al., 2010).

In their study, Gilbride et al. (2003) identified key characteristics of employers with an openness to accommodate people with disabilities. These organizations welcome diversity to offer an inclusive environment and reflect a personal management style that emphasizes the employee’s performance instead of highlighting the disability. They reward diversity and it is encouraged by senior management, providing accommodation to all employees by matching the job requirements with the right capabilities, through input from people with disabilities(Gilbride et al., 2003).

The moral and business case

Accommodating people with disabilities— or in a broader sense — pursuing diversity and inclusion work can be justified in two different ways.

  1. The moral case for diversity is derived from legislation and focuses on reducing discrimination by creating equal opportunities through social diversity within the organization (Mensi-Klarbach, 2012).
  2. In contrast to that, this scholar describes the business case for diversity in terms of economic value that diversity practices result in. In their study of European enterprises, the European Commission (2003) lists a number of business benefits of diversity initiatives:
  • the ability to attract and retain talent,
  • higher productivity,
  • stronger cultural values,
  • increased productivity through higher motivation,
  • enhanced creativity and innovation,
  • improved customer service and corporate image.

While the business case for diversity emphasizes productivity and profitability gains, it could also have unintended side effects that result in discriminatory practices and segregation based on stereotypes (Bendick et al., 2010). These scholars claim that diversity cannot be implemented without inclusion, proposing organizations to adopt a business case that promotes workplace inclusion to circumvent negative side effects.

The business case for diversity management

Mensi-Klarbach (2012) takes a step further by arguing that moral and business cases can, in fact, be seen as intermediate states towards achieving an end state of inclusion. It then becomes a business case for diversity management so that organizations actively pursue diversity and inclusion practices to generate economic value.

In the context of people with disabilities, diversity management requires from employees and managers that disability is seen as a diversity factor and that it can have human resources management implications regarding job retention and termination (Nafukho et al., 2010). These scholars propose that diversity management should include different forms of disability:

  • physical (mobility impairment and chronic illness),
  • sensory (visual and hearing impairment),
  • cognitive (mental retardation and learning disability),
  • and emotional (depression and other psychological conditions) (p.395).

More general, diversity management is a combination of senior management top down and bottom up activities that commit the entire organization to creating an inclusive environment (Danowitz & Hanappi-Egger, 2012). Additionally, a diversity strategy then involves not only a vision for inclusion, but it also defines required actions steps and effective resource allocation.

Extending on the notion of a diversity strategy, Danowitz and Hanappi-Egger (2012) contrast managing diversity with offering equal opportunities:

Managing diversity focuses on maximizing employee potential by including a broad range of individuals, creating a diversity movement and an inclusive culture. In doing so, it involves everyone from senior management to the employee level to achieve business objectives.

Equal opportunities, aims at reducing discrimination through positive action, making diversity an issue for minority groups that is handled by human resources management to meet specific quotas (Danowitz and Hanappi-Egger, 2012).

Diversity strategies can be studied through different models of diversity management. Danowitz and Hanappi-Egger (2012) group them into three categories:

  1. Stage and process models that are reactive, focus on equality and are driven by policies;
  2. Change models, in contrast, can be described as proactive, centred on changing culture through a broad range of activities;
  3. Finally, organizational learning models emphasize learning to accommodate diversity and achieve inclusive organizations.

Design Thinking

An organizational change challenge can be solved with the right communication and an appropriate change strategy. Long-term effects in terms of diversity and inclusion, however, can only be achieved when they take into consideration the various individuals involved, especially in the context of people with disabilities.

Barnes & Mercer (2005), for example, contend that previous diversity and inclusion work has failed to consider social and environmental barriers that people with disabilities face. They propose adopting these individuals’ perspectives to reorganize what work means for them.

Adding to that, Nafukho et al. (2010) argue that the field of human resources should attempt to learn about how the potential of all individuals inside the organization can be maximized.

In that sense, Buzzanell (2017) guides us to critically reflect upon previous diversity and inclusion work and shift the focus towards a new way of approaching the various challenges that are involved in this field.

In her research, she argues that rational diversity and inclusion approaches lack the ability to address root causes and maintain harmony to achieve a state of inclusion. She explains inclusion in terms of how feelings and actions are associated with belongingness, giving individuals a voice and thus considering different points of view.

Accordingly, inclusion is a continuous process that cannot alone be tackled by episodic interventions, but instead necessitates divergent thinking, the tolerance of contradiction and ambiguity (Buzzanell, 2017).

This scholar then introduces the concept of Design Thinking to the field of diversity and inclusion. In Design Thinking, different root causes, problems and needs are revealed, which ultimately helps to uncover explicit and tacit interests and needs (Buzzanell, 2017). Therefore, human-centred design for diversity and inclusion requires comprehending both marginalized and privileged individuals in their social complexities (Buzzanell, 2014).

More general, Design Thinking can be defined as “an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign” (Razzouk & Shute, 2012; p. 330).

During that process, concrete observations and experiences in a real- life context are reflected upon and developed into frameworks and insights (Beckman & Barry, 2009). Accordingly, through convergent thinking these insights are transformed into ideas, which are developed into prototypes that can be tested in a real-life context again (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 — Design Thinking Cycle (taken from Beckman & Barry (2009, p. 153)

Since Design Thinking is viewed as a user-centricity mindset, it adds feasibilities and flexibilities to organizational change models and theories for given situation (Drews, 2009). The possibility of success for change models largely depends on to what extent they are tailored for given situations (Sato et al., 2010).

For the process strategies for change model, Design Thinking is embedded in the freeze, rebalance and unfreeze intervention theory (Weick & Quinn, 1999) (see Table 1).

  • Specifically, Design Thinking is used to visualize intangible sequences and patterns based on insiders’ experiences during the unfreeze stage.
  • In the rebalance phase, Design Thinking mainly contributes to reinterpret, redefine, and restructure these patterns and sequences.
  • In doing so, existing strategies or principles are adjusted or reproduced in order to make organizations consistent with the environment.
  • To unfreeze is to keep organizations learning and adapting through the Design Thinking mindset (Weick & Quinn, 1999).
Table 1–Integrating Design Thinking with change management, adapted from Weick & Quinn, 1999; Ford et al., 2008; Feldman & Pentland, 2003 and Sato et al., 2010

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