The Diversity Trap: How to make sure that being different makes a difference

I’m a huge believer in diversity[1]. Not only because I’m convinced that the universe is a better place when there’s a balance between sports cars and handbags, soccer and yoga, trousers and skirts, swords and flowers, skilful means and wisdom, and whatever other dualistic distinctions we might want to come up with[2]. But also because I’ve witnessed countless examples of discussions and decisions getting better when more perspectives are brought to the table, more critical questions are asked, and more counterintuitive suggestions are made[3].

Now, this is exactly where the problem starts: All too often, companies (or other institutions) – no doubt with a totally honest interest in reaping tangible and intangible benefits from diversity – focus on measuring and increasing the outer indicators of diversity, in particular the share of diverse groups[4] across the ranks all the way up to the top. This, I want to argue, is insufficient if their aim is to achieve the usually proclaimed purpose of diversity, namely richer, deeper, more reflective, and therefore ultimately better ways of discussing (difficult) issues and making (tough) decisions[5]. And in some cases, focusing too much on the externally visible indicators of diversity might even – perish the thought! – counteract the very goals that they were indented to serve.

How so? And then, what to do? Let me tackle both questions in turn:

Firstly, from a purely logical point of view, there’s absolutely no causal link – and maybe not even a correlation – between being different (in whatever way) and speaking up for different views. There are examples of very diverse groups where people still don’t speak up – be that because (for whatever reasons) they’re not encouraged to do so[6] or because (for whatever reasons) they decide to go with the flow of the group[7]. And there are examples of rather coherent groups where controversial discussions are very much possible or even mandatory[8]. Of course, there are also diverse groups that actually make very good use of their being diverse, like when a little girl, a dog, scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion set out on a journey. But that’s not what we’re interested in right now[9].

Then, practically, sometimes a weird thing happens when organisations work hard to promote diversity “candidates” through their ranks: Ironically, there are many instances where those who are supposedly brought in and supported because of their differences are actively encouraged to adapt to the organisation’s established thought patterns and behaviours in order to be successful – be that in terms of dress code[10], ways of speaking and presenting[11], or advisable career steps[12]. When this happens, it automatically weakens the desired outcome of increasing diversity, as, by the time the once diverse people arrive in leading positions, they’ll most likely be so thoroughly soaked in the organisation’s defining features and follies that they’re not that diverse anymore[13].

In addition, there’s an ethical aspect to the problem: When diversity “candidates” are selected because of their being part of a group, their group affiliation automatically takes at least equal footing with their individual merits, skills, and capabilities as a person. This is not only an issue in the long-standing debate about quota for women[14], it’s even an more questionable stance when you take into account the statistical truth that no individual is ever a perfect representative of the group(s) they belong to – let alone when you dare to recall the fact that there were (and still are) episodes in the history of mankind when defining human beings through their belonging to certain groups had the most atrocious consequences. Personally, I prefer to take sides with those who believe that our humanity is expressed best by being (seen as) a person, not by being (seen as) part of a group[15].

Finally, from a political or tactical point of view, those who are brought into certain positions (also) because of their diverse qualities, whatever these may be, unwillingly end up finding themselves in a never-ending struggle between doing or saying what the group they’re supposed to represent might want, do or think and what they themselves want, do or think[16]. This can be just time consuming and a little annoying, like when the few female partners of a professional service firm have to take a more-than-fair share of external representation roles because “we need to have at least one woman there”. It can also be psychologically painful and reputationally difficult, like when the only female board member has to stand strong with her board colleagues in an unfavourable decision regarding another female manager.

So what to do? Of course, I do not recommend giving up on promoting diversity in whatever dimensions organisations decide to make it part and parcel of their culture. And I strongly advise any organisation that is being serious about this to read up on all the good research that has been done about how to move women (or any other protagonists of diversity) into and up in the organisation[17]. At the same time, I do recommend to also look at the inner mechanisms that – regardless of presence or absence of outer indicators of diversity – support the expression and exchange of diverse views, broad and deep discussion of critical issues, and decision-making with a maximum reflection on possible challenges, risks, and failures.

In my experience, there are four hallmarks of teams or organisations that do create and maintain an inner culture of diversity, namely:

In the beginning (i.e. when recruiting new employees, staffing teams, or promoting people), pick the troublesome individuals. Pick people not for who they are, but for their ability to think sharply, speak up boldly, and get unpopular things done. Choose those who see flaws in everyone, who ask critical questions, who see through superficial arguments and spot the undercurrents of emotions, unhealthy patterns, and jealousies omnipresent in all organisations[18]. As an aside: If you want to minimise collateral damage, it helps to train people in how exactly they address all those faults, so make sure you have good tools for critical feedback in place[19].

In the middle, ask “Why?” as much as you can. In my view, this is by far the most important universal conversdation tool (originally introduced as part of the lean manufacturing toolkit), and it is hugely undervalued and underused in professional (and personal) discussions and decision making processes. Usually, the third “Why?” will already get you to layers of meaning that you hadn’t expected, and if you keep going all the way to the fifth “Why?” you’ll most likely drill down to all aspects of causes and conditions that weave their web around the decision you’re about to take[20]. Doing this persistently will contribute to diversity as you’ll become more and more acquainted with the fact that similar positions can come from very different views, and that similar views can produce very different positions, so you’ll never take agreement or disagreement for granted.

Towards the end, ask yourselves (as a group): “What would it take for this to be wrong?”[21]. Be as creative as you can in coming up with scenarios that completely destroy the decision you’re about to take. Document your thinking. This will not only help you to watch out for early indicators for necessary changes in strategy or direction; it will also help you to prevent any future blame games, because when a threat creeps up it’ll either be on your list (which means that you actively decided to ignore it – most likely for good reasons) or it will not be there (which means that you missed out on an unexpected development). In either case, noone can blame you as a team for taking the decision you took at the time[22]. Again, this practice contributes to diversity as it pushes your thinking to actively include perspectives that you consciously do not take.

Finally, when all is said and done, ask “Who disagrees?”. Whenever I work with groups that have to make decisions on a regular basis, I emphasise this question – and this exact wording. Don’t say: “I think we all agree”, don’t ask: “Does anyone not agree?”. Ask: “Who disagrees?”, and then, when someone speaks up, go back to the “Why?” routine. This is the only question that will make sure you get any remaining disagreements out in the open – and anyone who disagrees and does not speak up at that point in time loses their right to ever speak up in the future[23]. Diversity benefits from this, both because every individual is encouraged to speak up for their (different) perspective, and because the group gets used to expecting and valuing disagreement as a productive force.

You might want to ask what’s so special about these four. And I might want to answer that there’s really nothing special about them. They’re not rocket science. They could (and maybe should) be good practice in any discussion that aims to come to a solid conclusion. Still, ever so often, they’re not. Be honest about your own experience. So why, if this is so obviously helpful does it still not happen? The reason, I believe, is that it can be really hard to be on the receiving end of these practices. It’s kind of nice when you’re the one uncovering flaws, asking “Why?”, inviting others to come up with creative destructive scenarios, and asking: “Who disagrees?”. It’s a lot harder when you’re the one whose flaws are being uncovered, who has to explain “Why?”, who has to paint scenarios that kill the very idea that was just conceived after heated discussions, and who has to speak up for their disagreement.

So a corollary to these inner practices of diversity is the courage to accept, respect, and cherish ourselves and others as people who are most likely not right about what we think we are right about. Which also somehow implies that we accept, respect, and cherish ourselves and others as people who are not who we think we are. Which, if thought through, could actually mean that it’s a logical fallacy to believe that bringing someone in for what they are will make them contribute different perspectives – because doing the latter requires the exact opposite, namely to be able to be who we are not.

I better stop here. Continue to fight for diversity. It’s a good goal to have.

[1] Disclosure: My passport says I’m a woman. Also, I serve on the board of Generation CEO, a business network for women in top management in Germany [website retrieved on Jul 18, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[2] The timeless soundtrack for this is [retrieved on Jul 18, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[3] For a unsurpassed analysis of the importance of such features in order to avoid fatal mistakes in decision making see Irving Lester Janis’ “Groupthink” (1982).BACK TO TEXT

[4] The specific focus of diversity that companies (or other institutions) pick varies over time: There’s always women, i.e. gender diversity. Then there’s international diversity, racial or ethnical diversity, age diversity, more recently also diversity with regard to lesbian, gay, bi- or transsexual people (LGBT). Also, within teams, some institutions have chosen diversity as defined by a psychometric system such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a measure for the range of differences they want to see. And in the future, there’ll certainly be more dimensions that we cannot even dream of right now.BACK TO TEXT

[5] At this point, I’, happy to admit that I owe the inspiration to write about this topic to a couple of very good questions asked to me by Sonya Winterberg for an article on “Pinkwashing” for the Berlin city magazine “Siegessäule”.BACK TO TEXT

[6] For good examples, think of armies (apart from the gender aspect, the diversity of the archetypical conscription army is probably the biggest single instance of diversity of people with no impact on diversity of discussions and decisions) or certain monastic orders or monasteries (where often the entrance ceremony makes an explicit point of eliminating anything “different” about the novice).BACK TO TEXT

[7] Think cheerleaders or other groups of people doing sports together where synchronicity is valued higher than bringing in differences. Also, you might want to think about certain organisational cultures that encourage identification with common values, thought patterns, or behaviours. Of course, there are a lot of advantages (and sometimes even necessities) to such an approach to organisational coherence – but that’s not the point here. The point is that, again, that the simple fact that people are different (in whatever dimension) does not automatically imply that they bring different views to the table.BACK TO TEXT

[8] Think of a well functioning philosophical or scientific debate, for example, where it’s part of the codex to speak up for different views. Read any of Plato’s dialogues for illustration. Or, if you’re into a different set of cultural references, read the Milinda Panha, the “Questions of King Milinda” (although you could argue that, in this case, the participants of the discussion are actually quite different in a number of dimensions).BACK TO TEXT

[9] To catch a glimpse of the magic that happens when this works well, watch [retrieved Jul 18, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[10] A few weeks ago, I wrote about an entertaining example of this here [retrieved Jul 18, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[11] Do a search around, for example, presentation skills for women to find out more. It’s actually quite interesting that even strong promoters of a distinctive non-gendered or even female work culture often still encourage women to “work on” (i.e.: change) their speaking or presenting skills. Ask me for examples, if you want some.BACK TO TEXT

[12] An interesting illustration of this aspect of the debate is the open letter exchange between Nora-Vanessa Wohlert of Edition F, a German online magazine for business women [Note: The auto-correct function just replaced this with “bunnies” – I’m not sure what to make of that] and Heiner Thorborg, a doyen of executive search in Germany and an early supporter of increasing women’s shares in boardrooms, published here [retrieved Jul 18, 2015]. In my view, the key point of their conversation comes down to whether you want to believe that the system (of corporate business in Germany, in this case) needs to change in order to successfully foster diversity or whether you want to believe that those who bring diversity into the system need to play along with the rules of the system in order to be successful. This, of course, is just a specific instance of one of the very fundamental questions of mankind, philosophy, and political theory so don’t expect me to answer it right here and now.BACK TO TEXT

[13] A striking variation on this theme is the argument I quite often hear from soon-to-be CEOs who say that they’ll only do certain things they think are right once they’re officially in their new roles – this might be worth a separate blog post at some point.BACK TO TEXT

[14] In Germany, this discussion manifests in the strange figure of the “Quotenfrau”, the woman who’s been appointed to position not only, but at least also because she’s a woman. There are women who claim they’d never want to be a “Quotenfrau” because it belittles  their professional achievements. A debate, by the way, that gets increasingly more complicated the more dimensions of diversity organisations try to comply with: How to even define and measure diversity with regard to internationality? Or sexual orientation? What if the latter changes? Whose business is it anyhow how I like to see my sexual energies manifest and how exactly does this link to my organisation’s success? What if I personally want to keep this to myself? How to weigh different diversity dimensions against each other? Can they be cumulated in one person, or would a widely traveled Lesbian have to make up her mind whether she represents women, internationality, or LGBT?BACK TO TEXT

[15] Watch this – long – interview with Hannah Arendt, it’s mandatory on this question: [retrieved Jul 18, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[16] This, of course, is just a specific instance of the more general principal-agent problem that many managers (or politicians) are plagued by. But this circumstance doesn’t make it any easier to handle for the individuals affected.BACK TO TEXT

[17] In my time with McKinsey, I was involved in preparing some of the “Women Matter” Studies that have since morphed into “Diversity Matters”. You might want to start here to read up on them [retrieved Jul 19, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[18] Yes, this is a bit of a criticism of the trend to cheer for optimism, positive thinking, or upbeat leadership. I’m not questioning that there are huge merits to positive psychology, strength-based development, and similar uplifting tools. I’m sure they can do a lot to help individuals muster the courage and inspiration to navigate the rapids of modern institutional work life and get things done. But: This alone will not make for good discussions and good decisions. It might even be a hazard for them. If you’re interested, I can write about this separately one day. For now, just listen to [retrieved Jul 19, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[19] I might be repeating myself. Still, the best read on this is Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s “How the way we talk can change the way we work” (2001), in particular, chapter 5.BACK TO TEXT

[20] For inspiration, you might want to listen to [retrieved Jul 19, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[21] An interesting variation on this question that brings in an aspect of sustainability is: “Who suffers when we are successful?”. You might want to try this out – it could help you anticipate possible troubles from unexpected sources. It’s also not a bad question to ask in your personal life.BACK TO TEXT

[22] My friend Dave Zwieback will soon publish a book most likely called “Beyond blame” – once it’s out, you should read it. Follow him on to read more about his thinking and his work. While waiting for his book to come out, you could listen to [retrieved Jul 19, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[23] For a romantic version of this recommendation, see [retrieved Jul 19, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

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