This article first appeared on Wearesalt.org
From corporate boards to presidential cabinets, the 20th century witnessed multiple major fiascos where groupthink, or the tendency to work in isolation and suppress dissent, has led certain cohesive groups to overestimate their might and morality, and underestimate the risks involved in their decisions. Inthe21stcentury,thistendencyposes additional risks. Our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) worlds necessitate innovation whereas the conformity of homogenous groups suppresses it. Diversity, on the other hand, has the built-in potential for novelty. A meta-study of 90,000 firms from around the world, confirmed that heterogeneous groups tend to engage in deeper discussions, and produce more innovative solutions.
That diversity is good for business is widely accepted.
However, leveraging the wider range of talent and ideas is more than about having more women, younger people and a multiplicity of culture and ethnicity in our workplaces. Human interaction is grounded on a fundamental feature of network formation – that of homophily. This tendency of “birds of a feather (to) flock together” exists at every level of existence, between cities and within brains, in schools and communities, online and offline – and organisations are no exception.
In order to harness the power of a varied group of talented people, a leader needs to work against the unconscious biases that lead us to pre-judge people, play into cultural stereotypes and increase undue pressure to conform.
APPRECIATING SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
Gender, culture and generation gaps fuel feelings of uncertainty that the brain perceives as threatening. It prevents people from reaching out to each other and engaging in divergent or novel ideas.
The good news is that homophily is not due to aversion, but simply a survival strategy of the primitive brain. Leaders who encourage exposure to the many cultures and subcultures that make up an organisation’s social fabric create a positive climate of helpful behaviour, richer interpretations of fresh ideas, and an organisational culture that honours differences and appreciates a common underlying humanity.
VALUING PEOPLE AS HUMAN BEINGS
Trust is the glue that strengthens social bonds and provides a sense of safety where people feel comfortable being authentic and helping the group attain collective goals through collaboration and appropriate risk-taking.
A leader who appreciates and values each employee models the level of trust and positive relationships within the organisation. Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller and author of Everybody Matters says: “Leadership is the stewardship of the precious lives that come to you . . . to share their gifts with you.” By encouraging human bonds outside the working relationship, leaders can help employees overcome unconscious biases, enter the worlds of others with empathy, and bring the soul back into their organisations.
NURTURING POSITIVE EMOTIONS
Humans are social and emotional beings, wired to act through emotions, not reasoning. Emotions not only impact our behaviours, but also brain function, regulating the neurochemical dopamine that is available in thinking and decision- making processes.
Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to accurately read and interpret diverse emotional responses, including body language and micro-expressions, in order to identify shifts in mood and engagement. This is especially important in diverse settings where the instinct for conflict is higher, as is the tendency for minorities to refrain from voicing their ideas. Through open and honest conversation that expresses appreciation and is respectful of diverse positions, leaders can help maintain a positive emotional climate where each person feels safe to explore original and divergent ideas. Diversity is a 21st century reality. The forces at play, from mass immigration to an increasing number of women in the work place and a new generation of millenials eager to make a difference, are an evolutionary trend gathering momentum. And yet it begets the question – why now? Why now, when the world continues to get more complex and volatile? Why now, when a changing and chaotic environment needs us to continuously adapt to uncertainty? If we were to take a page from ontogeny, we would find that it is in the linkage of differentiated parts that we become resilient. The diversity in our organisations may well be urging us to appreciate differences and unite behind a common story, in order to ensure that they develop the resilience to survive the 21st century and beyond.
Leaders would do well to be aware of this larger phenomenon, and value each employee for their individuality and their significance in the larger whole. Much like the conductors of an orchestra.