Accept this challenge. Pretend you’re a scientist and note your immediate response to reading the following words: Diversity. Equity. Inclusion.
Did you bristle? Did you feel hope? Or did you think, “Ugh, buzz words?” Don’t judge your response. Just notice it. With curiosity, consider whether it’s possible no matter how you felt reading those words, they could play an increasingly important role in the long-term viability of your workplace. That’s not a political statement. It’s a recognition of the undeniable signposts that point in that direction.
According to the results of a recent Gallup poll, workers born between 1989 and 2001 — Gen Z and young Millennials — say one of the top three factors they consider in choosing an employer is whether or not the organization is diverse and inclusive of all people. Since this group now comprises nearly half the work force, that wish-list item can’t be dismissed if we want to compete for top talent.
Another signpost can be found in the growing body of research showing organizations that prioritize diversity and inclusion perform better than organizations comprised of people who look, think and act alike. When teams trade the coziness of homogeneity for the discomfort of diversity, they innovate six times more and hit performance targets twice as often. An effort at Google called Project Aristotle found that psychological safety on a team — the sense of belonging — constitutes the No. 1 predictor of high performance.
Diverse and inclusive teams don’t happen by accident. We must overcome cognitive wiring that influences us to gravitate toward people like us over people who are not — a bias that in today’s world leads to pain, not survival. Think about how many of us felt in middle school when we were excluded for wearing the wrong shoes; earning good grades; or being too small, too big, too slow or too fast. In an effort to belong, we formed groups of us and them that ultimately hurt more than helped.
As adults, we still form these groups, even if unintentionally. We give those who are like us more of our attention, information, resources and time. We share more positive feedback. We ask them for their opinions. We involve them in our decision-making.
When we do this as leaders in the workplace, we make those not like us feel like outsiders. This signals to them not to bother to step up to speak or lead — and this further limits their visibility and opportunities. The result is an environment that undermines their self-confidence and ability to perform — which ironically, reinforces our unconscious or conscious beliefs people unlike us are inferior.
While this often happens along lines of ability, age, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, it can also happen along the divides of body weight, parenthood status, past conflicts, personal interest, personality traits and any other quality we perceive as different.
To avoid this trap and reap the benefits of diverse and inclusive teams, start with these basic action items:
Assess the fairness of your hiring practices. Do you tend to hire mostly people with whom you hit it off right away? Do you believe you “know it when you see it” in spotting top talent? If so, put some checks and balances in place to ensure you’re filling the gaps in the mosaic you want to create on your team rather than hiring only those who look, think and act the same.
Evaluate and eradicate discriminatory pay, promotion and termination practices. Collect data and review it regularly. You can’t trust you’ll see discrimination on your own because as humans our fragile egos conceal from our awareness any behaviors that contradict with our self-concepts. Data provides insights we’ll otherwise miss.
Monitor and ensure everyone on your team is offered learning, development and growth opportunities. Don’t assume those who want to grow will simply raise their hands. Not everyone has been taught to see growth is possible, let alone take the risk of asking for opportunities.
Eliminate and never tolerate harassment or abuse.
Now, take notice of your response to these words: Innovation. Untapped potential. Belonging. If these words resonate with you, focus on them. Take one small step today to cultivate them in your workplace. As author Grace Lee Boggs said: “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”