Implementing A Beneficially Diverse Organization

The benefits of diversity are pretty clear: people who can incorporate multiple perspectives and who aren't afraid to experiment are more likely to innovate. But how do you get from here to there? Guest columnists Heather E.Bock and Charles Greco explain the process.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 9, 2002

6 Min Read

Executives often think their organizations need diversity to avoid governmental sanctions, employee discontent, and poor customer sentiment. While those are good reasons, from the perspective of an effective organization, they are not the best reasons.

To respond to a changing environment, a business must be flexible and innovative. It must be more productive, effective, and efficient than its competition. What allows that to happen? Its employees. What characteristic of employees enable organizations to change, improve, and beat the competition? Diverse working and thinking styles and diverse motivational interests.

Innovation arises from open mindedness, multiple perspectives, and willingness to experiment. You get different perspectives when you put together people whose working and thinking styles vary. If you teach people to be open minded and to value other opinions, experimentation will follow. The results are innovative solutions to business challenges. And, because diversity enables organizational innovation and productivity, it's a long-term enabler of profitability.

Building a diverse organization is like any other enterprise-wide organizational change. It produces organizational disruption, which causes employee resistance, which at a minimum slows implementation and at worst thwarts the objective. To create and benefit from a diverse workforce, approach the issue with a change management perspective. Build commitment to the change, not just compliance.

Creating an enterprisewide commitment begins with the executive team. Top leaders must understand and believe in the value of diversity. When the leaders value a competency, principle, or morality, they can easily convey that value through their own words and actions, and the actions they reward.

Communicating The Vision
Just as leaders must believe in diversity, so must the rest of the organization. Give employees the opportunity to understand "what's in it for them." In a beneficially diverse organization, employees' input is wanted and their perspective is needed. To employees, increased diversity also means that their own interests can be expressed to their personal satisfaction and the company's benefit.

Obtaining "beneficial diversity" requires employees to accept each other's differences. Beneficial diversity results when employees seek out, listen to, and work with employees of different mindset or experience. In turn, managers must help their reports identify motivational interests and be creative in allowing expression of those interests.

Complete communication is not just talk. Once the CEO and departmental leaders proclaim the need and value of diversity, they must support it with obvious actions: establishing company policy, governance, and setting expectations; allocating resources for awareness and training and practicing beneficial diversity.

The executive leadership team must model the levels of diversity in action. They must seek out team members that are diverse not only in appearance but also in their knowledge, experiences perspectives, and interests. They must foster a team environment that welcomes and values differing opinions, thinking styles, and motivational interests. And they must build on one another's input when resolving issues and creating business innovation.

Most important, executive reinforcement must align with their words and actions. Their direct reports must be held accountable for diversity objectives and goals. Set expectations for behaviors that support diversity. Police the adherence to policy. Ensure participation in training, check for comprehension, and build work teams at all levels that seek out and use diverse input.

How Does Beneficial Diversity Happen: Planning For Implementation
No matter how committed the organization, the organization will never realize the benefits of diversity unless it executes an organized, goal oriented, date driven, measurable diversity implementation plan. Otherwise, it will be all talk and no action.

Establish awareness of thinking/working styles and motivational interests. Many career self-assessment programs can help identify motivational interests. Profiling tools, such as the Herman Brain Dominance Inventory and the Meyers Briggs Inventory, are excellent for uncovering one's own preferences for thinking and working styles. Additionally, many leadership and communication assessment tests uncover preferences in how people manage and share information.

Train Management to use diversity: As employees identify their own diversity, and value the diversity of other colleagues, managers must provide the means to transfer this enlightenment into organizational benefit. For example:

  • Encourage work groups to use and integrate each member's thinking and working style.

  • Find opportunities for each direct report's motivational interest to be expressed within her job description or somewhere within the organization.

  • Build relationships that foster open communication and enable continuous performance appraisal. This is key, as poor employee performance is often linked to diversity needs going unanswered by the organization.

Setting Diversity Expectations: Cascading Commitment
If executive leadership believes and proclaims the value of diversity, sets policy and governance, and reinforces actions that support diversity, then the organization has taken the first giant step toward setting expectations and cascading organizational commitment. The leadership team becomes sponsors of the change at the highest level. Expectations and commitment can cascade down the hierarchy.

As an example, let's take a VP in finance who does not yet get the message. The VP will reluctantly provide resources for managers' training, will make little opportunity for individuals within the department to express their business interests, will give low priority to identifying employee diversity, and will avoid cultivating a team that seeks and uses input from diverse employee natures. Furthermore, the VP will not set diversity expectations with his direct reports. The diversity momentum will stop there.

However, as the CFO speaks with the VP about the subject, and follows it up with specific expectations around resource allocation, measurable objectives, work-team initiatives, the VP begins to think the CFO is serious. When the VP witnesses the CFO practicing what she preached in staff meetings and interactions with other leaders, he knows the CFO is serious. And, when the CFO rewards the VP for establishing a working team that seeks diversity, while quickly punishing for missing opportunities and objectives, the VP understands what behaviors will make him successful. As the VP practices diversity and sets the same expectations with his direct reports, he realizes the benefits of a diverse organization, in effect, becoming a new sponsor of diversity.

The change agent's role, in this scenario, is to manage and coach the interactions between the CFO and VP. The CFO must be reminded to communicate openly and directly with the VP. She may need a list of expectations to set with the VP. The change agent should observe the CFO, identifying when actions do not align with words. Give feedback on how the VP is responding (for good or ill), so the CFO can reward and reprimand accordingly.

Becoming a "optimally diverse" organization requires a cultural transition at every level. It requires both leaders and employees to understand their responsibility in understanding one another's diversity on every level.

Heather E. Bock has a Ph.D. in Organization Behavior and has taught courses on Management and Change at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and School of Public Health. She has consulted to many organizations on managing cultural change and currently manages Andersen's Grow (Growth and Retention of the Workforce) program. Charles Greco is president and founder of Ordeim Consulting, a management consulting practice focusing on organizational development and improvement. He has consulted with Fortune 500 companies in the areas of change management, continuous improvement, cultural transition, work-team effectiveness, and business process redesign.

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