Diversity brings a range of experience, differences in mindset, background, upbringing, world view, etc. and, as a result, diversity of thinking.
When we talk about the business benefits of diversity and inclusion we are thinking of the removal of inequitable barriers and widening of the talent pool, the richness of culture that a diverse workforce can bring and, from a business perspective, the wide range of viewpoints and ideas which create an engine for innovation and increased profitability.
Harnessing other people’s brains is a key leadership skill, as is also being able to understand others’ needs and appealing to their hearts through defining and articulating a motivating shared purpose.
The yin and yang of leadership – ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ – should, I believe, be updated to ‘Sharing Hearts and Pooling Minds’.
The drive for diversity and inclusion in organisations is, thankfully, moving forward at pace and will hopefully lead to more diverse humans around the leadership table and thus diverse thinking in the most senior of leadership teams.
In my experience of working with senior leadership teams, there is often a vague understanding of the need and benefits of diversity. They know it’s a ‘good thing’ morally but often cannot articulate why from a business perspective and, even if they get the diverse thinking argument, they fail to fully leverage the benefits.
Many appear ill-equipped to know what to do with ideas different to their own when these appear around the senior leadership table. At its worst, they are confused that the new person that they have invited to share the table isn’t thinking like they are, isn’t towing the party line or ‘fitting in’.
Some leaders seem particularly focused on creating and ensuring team harmony, seeing the strongly held differences of opinion as conflict and to be avoided. They see a team as functioning ‘well’ when there is not dissent. But, as with many things, it is ‘how’ we challenge, not the challenge itself, that is the key. We don’t want harmony at all costs – and we don’t need outright conflict.
What we do need is ‘respectful challenge’. Ensuring that there is plenty of emotionally intelligent and respectful challenge of each other, is in my opinion, a business culture change that we need to make happen and soon.
Respectful challenge sits alongside co-creation but acknowledges that we need to draw differences of opinion out, in order to benefit from them and truly co-create, not bury the differences or paper them over in the name of being collaborative.
I am suggesting that we need to bring differences of thinking out into the open around the leadership table in a productive manner; to make it the norm to challenge openly, honestly but respectfully; to know that we don’t have the only answer, the one and only route; to really listen to and question each other with curiosity; and to find the nuggets in each of our ideas that when combined really are pure gold.
Our aim for leveraging diversity of thinking surely is not to agree quickly and move on, or shout down ideas that don’t make sense to us, our aim is to shine the light on different ideas and opinions, examine and find the optimum ideas for our organisations and then agree how to proceed.
Making the time to listen to multiple ideas drawn from many people may seem to be the antithesis of our fast moving, quickly decisive ways of working currently (and I’m not saying that we don’t have to make quick decisions in times of urgency), but we seem to have a business trend which pushes Pace over Quality – and I believe we are the poorer for it.
I have seen the following range of issues in leadership teams (sometimes several in the same team):-
None of the above are particularly healthy or lead to optimum functioning of a leadership team.
So, what are the solutions? Here are a few:
Now, the cry I often hear when discussing respectful challenge and co-creation is “it takes so much longer to hear others’ views”. My response to that is yes, it can take time, but the outcomes will be of higher quality, you will innovate more frequently, you will have more buy-in and less instances of having to ‘do-over’ as potential objections and new ideas will have been addressed.
Of course, there will be instances when, in a time critical situation, a more rapid response may be needed – and often this will need to lean on the expertise of one or two people in the group advising the others. That said, in my experience once respectful challenge becomes the norm within a team it becomes quicker to achieve results that truly work as opposed to the delays that arise from the huddles of dissent outside of the meetings.
In summary, in order to really leverage the benefits of diversity we need to develop habits and behaviours which allow us to harness everyone’s unique brains. It’s not enough just to invite diverse thinking to the table and then think ‘job done’, we have to really be prepared to open up our minds to differences of opinion and build a culture of speak up and listen.
We need to build the emotional intelligence skills to actively listen, question with curiosity, build the skill of respectful challenge in all members of our leadership teams, and be humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers and our job as leaders isn’t to provide all the answers ourselves.
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020