The lack of diversity in many organisations, especially at a senior level, is well documented. If you look at the ‘Our Executive Team’ pages on many organisations’ websites, you might be drawn to conclude that people like me (I’m a white middle-aged male) make up 98% of the population. But we don’t, we are just massively over-represented.
Like many others, I believe that this lack of diversity is a real cause for concern. Homogenous groups have a nasty habit of getting stuck in group-think as a consequence of the lack of challenge caused by the lack of diversity of perspectives and experiences. For example, one of the many dimensions on which we can have a lack of diversity is gender and there is much evidence about the problems this lack of diversity causes, for instance the HBR blog post ‘Why Boards need more women’. Not only does a lack of diversity have a detrimental impact on organisational performance, it also denies opportunities to many talented people who happen not to conform to some kind of prevailing organisational stereotype.
I firmly believe that we need to significantly broaden the diversity in organisations but I believe that we have to be careful to address the root cause and not just treat the symptom. I’d like to give people in organisations the benefit of the doubt and assume that most people don’t set out to deliberately discriminate and be prejudiced (at least, not the people I’m fortunate to spend my time with). So, what is going on? I think it runs really deep to a cognitive bias, a thinking trap, where we like people who are like us. If we fall into that trap and we recruit and encourage people that we ‘like’/are like us, then we end up with a complete lack of diversity and we simply propagate an organisational stereotype. I often see it when I do strengths-based work with teams; some leaders surround themselves with people who are very similar to themselves, leading to a weak team that doesn’t have a diversity of skills.
What can we do about this? I think we need to look deeper than the symptom (a lack of diversity), and focus on the underlying problem and make a conscious choice to change our perspective and mindset. I believe the change we need to make is simple: we need to start looking at people and valuing them for what they are, rather than what they’re not when we compare them to ourselves. I believe that developing this mindset changes everything both at an individual and organisation level.
Speaking from personal experience, you won’t change your mindset overnight. With practice, you’ll start to notice when you’re not doing this and be able to catch yourself and choose a different perspective. And when you do get it right, it changes the way you see yourself and it changes the way you see other people.
Please, let’s value people for what they are, rather than judge them for what they’re not. That way, we’ll see real diversity.