Why diversity is better
5 years ago our dear founder, Antony, came to Montreal with his family in the hope of building a different life that the one they had known in Colombia. Without understanding any of the languages spoken in the city (namely, French and English), Antony managed to integrate Montreal’s society through experimentation and learning. He taught himself a few things, he created a few projects, and he integrated a french-speaking school, in which he met one of his best friend James, a Filipino born. The success that followed came from a long and hard process of integration, which allowed Antony to acknowledge -and later, enforce- the need for open-mindedness and understanding.
Antony’s personal experience set in motion one of the foundations of his future company: diversity. From the charming streets of Quebec City to Russia, passing through Peru, Morocco, Spain, and China; from men to women; hetero- to homosexual orientations; and a set of different educational backgrounds, Uvolt is not only the result of such a diverse pool of experiences, but their cultivator. It feeds on variety of opinions and combines them together, to harness the joint power of individual distinctions.
This story touches upon two main concepts: the benefits of diversity, and the need for proper leadership in creating an integrative environment. But before we jump into them, we should properly describe what diversity means, because it is not only the difference in national origin, primary language, gender, religion, social status and age… The definition also encompasses personality, cognitive style, tenure, educational background, and organizational function. It is a cause, as well as a consequence, of perception: the way people perceive themselves and how they perceive others affects -voluntarily or involuntarily- the interaction between them. Consequently, and vice versa, the nature of the interaction affects the perception of the actors involved in it.
The implications of diversity in the workplace, or within any institution or group of people, have been well documented, and are still today a matter of controversy. This might be a surprise for certain people, but you know… in 2017, feminism is still a thing. To put a little bit of context here, Canada is an interesting example: as welcoming as it is, the country has a number of visible minorities that account for almost 20% of the population. Yet, many of those racialized groups are underrepresented in professional positions. The legitimate or illegitimate causes of this might vary, of course, but the facts remain the same.
There are at least ten genuine reasons that explain why diversity can be advantageous and important, but for the sake of simplicity, we will focus on five.
Within the organization, diversity teaches integrity, open-mindedness, and understanding. It reaches out to different mindsets, which contributions might allow the organization to adapt to specific local & individual needs. Outside the organization, it allows for adjustment and accommodation to globalization and the recent rise of collaborative trends such as the shared economy. Indeed, these movements require more interaction among people from diverse backgrounds, and as people no longer live and work in insular environments, organizations need to diversify if they want to survive and remain competitive in the context of a global framework.
Learning and productivity
People with diverse cultural and educational backgrounds bring unique experiences and perceptions to the table, especially in groups and work teams. Diversity allows an organization to leverage the pool of global knowledge and expertise, therefore enhancing team’s productivity and responsiveness to changing conditions. This argument has been strongly enforced by academics who praise the concepts of open innovation and the wisdom of the crowds. The first one describes the act of reaching out to external sources of expertise, in order to co-create a certain project or co-solve a certain problem. The second one explains that because groups of people are “often smarter than the smartest people in them”, a crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts. They both show how creative companies can harness the collective genius of virtual communities to spur innovation and growth. This brings us to our third argument…
Creativity and problem-solving
Diversity has been proved to stimulate innovation and problem-solving skills, as well managed heterogeneous teams often come with more productive and creative ideas than homogeneous groups that perpetuate the traditional knowledge of the organization. Indeed, innovation often comes from unconventional practices that challenge the pursuit of efficiency, this one indicating the effectiveness in the implementation and use of PROVEN ideas. Creative companies and teams are often inefficient places to work, in which we can find slow learners (i.e. slow to learn how things are “supposed to be done”, and therefore don’t notice or care about pressures to follow the herd), people who make other people uncomfortable and with whom they often disagree (which stimulates the creation of new ideas in order to get to an agreement), outsiders (which are free from the prejudices of the veterans), and where both success AND failure are rewarded (for the sake of trying, experimenting, and learning from it) and what’s punished is “inaction”. In an organization filled with homogeneous people, diversity can be the principal route of reinvention.
Diversity can be an opportunity for personal growth, as employees are exposed to new ideas, cultures and perceptions that can help them gain perspective on their own existence, while acknowledging their surroundings and their place in the world. It can help them break down the subconscious barriers of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, encouraging them to be more well-rounded members the organization, and society as a whole. It also allows them to make use of their empathetic nature -if they have one- in trying to be understanding and welcoming towards others, or at least to learn how be tolerant.
Employees who acknowledge others’ differences are also more likely to find similarities, particularly when there is a common goal involved. Respect for other people can reduce the likelihood of conflict, or facilitate the process of conflict resolution if there is one. The ability to resolve the conflict can minimize potential complaints that could otherwise escalate to more serious matters, sometimes even involving legal action.
A few challenges can be associated to the management of diversity within an organization. We highlight:
Perceptual, cultural and language barriers might hinder the productivity and cohesiveness of small groups (especially if they work in virtual teams). Over the long-term, diversity might break down communication barriers, but the first impressions and orientation periods can be difficult to control when cultures clash.
The formation of social groups within an organization is a natural process which can be influenced only to a small degree. Because of this, companies can experience informal divisions in their staff, creating a situation in which culturally diverse employees might avoid exposure during break times and after work. Although this is natural, and not fundamentally wrong, it can hinder the effectiveness of sharing knowledge, skills and experience, and thus reduce the productivity curve. Not to mention the negative psychological effects it can have on the people being “marginalized”.
Employee Satisfaction and Retention
In terms of employee satisfaction, organizations that don’t support and nurture a diverse workplace may be able to recruit diverse talent but will face major challenges when trying to retain it. Because diverse people are more likely to feel alienated from the overall culture of the organization, they have more probabilities of feeling undervalued, and therefore, are more likely to leave the organization.
The solutions to those challenges can be best implemented through inspiring leadership. Leaders need to be open-minded, yet skeptical enough to attract the necessary talent for the purpose on hand (i.e. they should n0t hire diverse people just for show). They need to foster an attitude of inclusion within the organization, promote diversity in leadership positions, and utilize diversity training. They also need to genuinely advertise the advantages of social justice, and how a diverse workforce is a reflection of a changing world (adaptability). For proper communication, leaders could implement employee-engagement softwares, and other applications which can facilitate coordination and cohesion among employees.
Homogeneous organizations wanting to diversity should first try to understand discrimination and its consequences, and then recognize their own cultural biases and prejudices. It is only after this is done, and they are willing to change where it is necessary, that they can engage in open-minded leadership.
Alexandra Laval, Uvolt