Who owns Diversity? A schema for managers on how to make diversity work

When I was asked to write this article I spend time trying to identify what would be the most significant advice I would give someone managing across cultures. After some reflection I realized that the most important thing a manager needs to do is to make an unequivocal decision to “own diversity”.

What does this mean? Why have I chosen this topic of ownership as the most impactful thing you could do as a manager? Ownership means, in the context of diversity a clear, honest, heartfelt commitment to behave in such a way that there is no doubt that you are convinced diversity is good for business and good for your company, and therefore you will honor and guard any process or initiative related to this topic. This type of ownership will inevitably showcase your leadership attributes and set you apart from the rest. This sentiment is essential for diversity to be successful!

Let me give you some fact on how diversity is good for business, which I mention in my book, Can You Afford to Ignore Me? How to Manage Gender and Cultural Differences at Work:

University of Michigan Professor Scott E Page and economist Lu Hong from Chicago Loyola University developed a mathematical model that reinforces the claim that diverse groups solve complex business problems better than homogenous groups. In fact their research shows that in certain circumstances diversity can trump ability!

Professor Margaret A Neale, from Stanford University shares that after reviewing 50 years of related research, she found that diversity across dimensions, such as functional expertise, education or personality can increase performance by enhancing creativity or group problem solving. “The mere presence of diversity you can see, such as race or gender actually cues a team in that there’s likely to be difference of opinion, which enhances the teams ability to handle conflict, because members expect it and are not surprised when it surfaces.”

In an article titled Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion written by Robinson, Pfeffer and Buccigrossi, when you create environments that are inclusive you promote engagement and therefore better performance-take a look at the numbers -customer satisfaction +39%,productivity +22%, profitability+27%,lower turnover -22%.

In addition cultures that are adaptive and inclusive show: 682% Increase in revenues; 282% of expanded workforce; 90% increase in stock price; 756% improvement in net income. These numbers are the result of research conducted by Harvard professor John Kotter who is an expert in the topic of corporate change.

So if we accept the fact that diversity is good for business then the next logical step is to develop a business plan to make sure you create truly diverse work environments. It’s important to note that when I talk about diversity, I mean not only gender, race, sexual orientation, but also disability, learning styles, age, qualities or traits that can make the individual a significant contributor.

Your plan needs to take in account the following:

1 – This is the first time four generations coexist at work.

2 – Percentage of women graduating at all educational levels will be higher- so the population of women at work will increase.

3 – More and more you will be exposed to markets and cultures beyond your reach and most often in completely different regions of the world, and you will be forced to create, manage virtual teams or work with foreign nationals, and guarantee top management that you will be able to make wise use of their talents and efforts.

4 – Data shows that to win the war for talent in the 21st century you have to look at the needs of your new work force who seek congenial work environments, fair treatment, positive working relationships and acceptance of individuality and personal preferences. Millennial have a different set of rules.

5 – Finally you will have to execute these strategies in the context of the local culture, your corporate culture and the internal business culture – no easy task!

So how do you develop a plan that shows you “own” diversity, that you truly advocate for inclusive work environments?

1 – Make sure you reach out to your managers who are running the company- ask them what they need, also ask them what is not working in their particular business unit. Are they having problems with the younger generation working along the more senior group? Are women feeling left behind?

2 – Once you have concluded what I call you “climate survey”, take a look at what you have in place as it relates to training and coaching and review their objectives and teaching models to match the needs of your managers. Too often I walk into scenarios where companies have existing training modules which are obsolete or the design and way of facilitating the program does not resonate with the employees.

3 – Determine what would be the top initiatives that you would undertake from three perspectives:

  • Education/training
  • Marketing and promoting the diversity agenda
  • Creating commitment from top leadership to support a culture that is truly inclusive.

As you look at these suggestions you might ask yourself, “Can I do this?” Maybe you have had limited experience dealing with cultures outside of the European market and so feel overwhelmed and a little lost?

Let me conclude with a wonderful recipe for success… I have used it in my work and it has been refined by quite a number of experts in this field. Some call itcultural relativity, others cultural dexterity, I have come to develop this process as a result of my upbringing. My family, especially my grandfather, exposed me at an early age to travel and he would always emphasize- look, observe, and then act and talk– “know your audience”.

The most important things that you need to do is accept that you will make mistakes and that you will learn from them, and that at the end of the day if you accept this reality it will all be fine. Research shows that people from any part of the world will forgive your “cultural” mistakes when they are addressed and accepted by you as an unintended consequence. True that some cultures are more flexible “forgiving” a mistake than others but in this global economy we are all been pushed to be more lenient.

Next make a commitment to try to learn as much as possible about the type of group you will have to interact most with- are you aware of the impact that biology and culture have on the behavior of men and women at work? Are you aware of research and experts who offer you the opportunity to learn the cultural dimensions of the countries or regions you are working with? Do you keep up with current events?

Follow your learning process with a very simple test- observe the person in front of you and look for how they speak, are they direct or indirect, are they formal or informal, are they talkative or reserved, do they share about who they are and their family or are do they tend to be discrete, are they fluent in your native tongue or only have working knowledge of the language? This is called “reading your audience” and this is the secret for success, for you to feel comfortable owning diversity.

I suggest you start using this process as a trial and do this a couple of times and evaluate how your interactions with other people “change” as a result of using this schema.

I have traveled and worked throughout Latin America, Europe, US and even Saudi Arabia, and this formula has worked quiet well. I assure you if you really work on these steps you will be able to walk into any environment and do just fine.

In my book I have a long list of exercises and suggestions that you can use to create inclusive work environment- take a look I’m sure they will be quite useful- I have used them for years and they always give me very positive results.

Your world will become more diverse, will move faster and will constantly change; you need an anchor to help you navigate this very tumultuous environment. Trust me when I say that owning diversity is your recipe for long lasting success.