Opinion

What do leaders need to understand about diversity?

Victoria L. Brescoll — January 2011

In globalized, multicultural organizations, leaders need to learn to create value out of diversity. Five experts discuss what it takes to make this happen.

Making Diversity Part of the Organization

David Thomas
H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

What do business leaders need to understand about diversity?

The first thing is that the companies that do it most effectively don’t have a separate program. What they do is integrate diversity into all of the processes of their organization. Diversity becomes a lens for looking at, identifying, developing, and advancing talent. So when they think about recruitment, they don’t only have a minority recruiter. They educate all of their recruiters about how to relate to the diversity of the population that they recruit from. 

Leaders need to know that they have to build accountability into their systems with regard to their managers taking responsibility for creating a diverse and inclusive work environment. We often see the people at the very top saying all the right things relative to diversity, but their middle management, who really run the organization and create the experience of people who work there, don’t understand and don’t feel accountable for diversity and inclusion.

You can cut diversity across a lot of different dimensions—what’s important for each organization is to identify the relevant dimensions, measure them, and make that part of how managers are evaluated. It’s not a matter of inventing new measures as much as it is using diversity as a lens to look at the measures that we have. And diversity, in my view, should also be one of the lenses through which we look at customers and community stakeholders.

There is a cosmetic diversity that can come when an organization decides they need internal diversity when they meet external stakeholders who are diverse. Those stakeholders need to be interacted with by someone like them, so African-Americans need to be interacted with by African-Americans. I think the danger there is that it pigeonholes people. 

The way I look at it is, if our customer base is diverse, we need diversity in our workforce so that we can learn from our own diversity to make ourselves more effective at meeting the needs of our clients. I, as an African-American male, will never be Asian, but if I’m in a diverse work group where we can actually talk about cultural differences, I can become much more effective relating to that Asian client. But if we’re homogeneous inside, then we’re likely to make all kinds of mistakes in the way we think about diversity. 

The most effective organizations, in my view, are organizations that don’t simply use their diversity in order to have legitimacy with clients, but use their diversity to increase the cultural competence of their workforce, writ large. 

I think that identity will increasingly be part of the conversation. What it means to be a diverse and inclusive place is not simply that you have people who look different, but that you have created an environment where people feel like, at the end of the day, they are who they are, uniquely, and in a way that integrates them, and that they’re not trapped in a box. We’re going to have to find a way to talk about diversity that isn’t just about categories, but it’s about the kind of organizations we want to create for people to be able to bring their identities to work and to be, if you will, whole people. And that’s really what I think is the future of the work around diversity.

 

Diversity of Thought and Innovation

Richard Boyatzis
Distinguished University Professor, H.R. Horvitz Chair of Family Business, Professor in the Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University

What do business leaders need to understand about diversity?

I think some of the most profound diversity we experience in life has to do with diversity of thought. Diversity initiatives can have important and interesting social justice benefits, but the real reason you want to pursue diversity programs is for innovation. You want diversity of thought. Here’s the key: If you want diversity of thought, you have to bring in people around you who have diverse experiences. Differences in race, gender, and socioeconomic background are three characteristics, but so are differences in learning style or differences in professional field. And I’m not suggesting that any one of those points of diversity is more potent than others. 

If a group has an ability to create dialogue, diversity of thought helps them not get into groupthink. On the whole, almost everybody knows the difference between right and wrong. So how do you help people, in the heat of the moment, when they let go of that and use some form of contingent morality or expediency or self-justification as an argument to do something that ends up being a bad thing? We need to teach people to have better conversations, more dialogue, with people who have differing views. How else can you get somebody to say, “I’m not sure that really is the best way to go” or “We’ve had this whole conversation and we haven’t mentioned our customers once”? 

There’s a performance-based argument to say that diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, diversity of opinion is really crucial. Why? Because the world changes. If you don’t have any changes in your marketplace or your competitors, if you don’t have any changes in your materials or your workforce, then maybe it doesn’t matter. But I don’t know of a business like that. One of the ways organizations adapt is by noticing what’s going on in the environment and trying new things. How do you come up with innovative ideas, unless you have a spectrum of ideas to examine? 

This is where emotional intelligence and social intelligence come in. Leaders need some degree of emotional intelligence to rise above our need to justify or validate ourselves, which is what happens when we seek people who are just like us in their thinking. And we need a certain amount of social competency to be able to engage people who do have differences of ideas and perspectives.

The default condition for the human organism, neurologically and hormonally, is to protect itself. That’s what happens under chronic stress or acute stress— our body goes into a defensive posture. That defensive posture closes down our ability to learn. We go into a state of cognitive and perceptual impairment. People stick with what they know, what’s comfortable, what feels safe. Strong leaders create an environment where people don’t need to get into that defensive posture, or when they do, they pull them back out of it. That’s how you encourage diversity of thought and innovation.

 

Gender in the Workplace

Victoria Brescoll
Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale SOM 

What do leaders need to know about gender in the workplace?

My work looks at what happens when people behave in gender-counter-stereotypical ways. We find that when they go against stereotypes, people generally lose status. And traditional organizational power and dominance behaviors, like talking a lot or expressing anger, really only work for men. 

I have a project to code C-SPAN videotapes of the Senate looking at volubility. For men, there’s a strong relationship between how much power a male senator has and how much he talks from the Senate floor. But for women, there’s practically no relationship whatsoever. 

Women who know what they’re doing know it’s not a power and status behavior for them. And it may even hurt. I have other studies that show that when women dominate the conversation in a meeting or show anger, they experience status decreases.

I used to work in the Senate, and I was fascinated by how many times female senators making their standard stump speeches would talk about how they never intended to become a politician in the first place. I never saw a male senator do that. But these women are masters of impression management. They know that this is an effective way to present themselves to the public. 

That was the inspiration for a study. We found that if people inferred that a woman had an intention to get power, or if she explicitly said that she was looking for a position of power, they were less likely to vote her into office. But people were more likely to vote for a man when he explicitly expressed or they inferred that he had that intention. 

We think that it’s entirely driven by expectations for how men and women are supposed to act. A strong desire for power on the part of women is very much violating a gender stereotype that women should be modest and play more of a backseat role.

So, it looks like men and women should use a different set of tools if they want to get ahead or maintain their status and power. And it’s not easy, but you can predict what those will be based on whether or not certain behaviors are consistent or inconsistent with common beliefs about how men and women should behave.

When you actually ask people if women should be able to express anger at work, they say it is okay. If you ask people if they would vote for a woman who says she wants power, they’ll say yes, I wouldn’t discriminate. But when we randomly assign people to view one of the scenarios, they will show the bias against the people enacting counter-stereotypical behavior. 

The simplest way that women can express anger while avoiding this bias, at least according to my research, is to offer an explicit reason, so that somebody can’t blame their anger on who they are as a person. It’s not offering an excuse, but a context. This is a great thing for women to do. 

Although this research appears to be about women, it’s really about gender. In all the examples, you can say that there’s a flip side. There are things that biases dictate that men should do and women shouldn’t. And vice versa. So things like expressing sadness or asking for a lot of help in a professional context might not be good tactics for men.

 

Diversity Initiatives at One Company

Niloufar Molavi
Tax Partner and U.S. Chief Diversity Officer, PricewaterhouseCoopers

What do leaders at PwC need to know about diversity in order to be effective?

Diversity can and should be a critical component of the innovation that leaders are driving in their organization, and it can and should be a competitive advantage for them. 

Research shows that diverse groups outperform homogeneous ones. I think of PwC as being in the business of serving clients; for us, innovation means solutions that we bring to our clients. And if we have people who come from different perspectives at the table, the solutions that we bring to our clients, the way we interact, and the relationships we build with our clients are going to distinguish us from our competitors. 

Demographic trends indicate that women and minorities are the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. workforce, and I think that’s true globally as well. A focus on diversity and building an organization that’s culturally inclusive is going to allow you to attract and retain that top talent.

One of our goals has always been, when we think about diversity, to make sure we’re building the cultural dexterity of all our people. By cultural dexterity, we mean the ability to connect across myriad areas, backgrounds, and focuses that are different. It’s difficult to be a true leader in today’s world without a minimum level of cultural dexterity. Ultimately, we need to make sure we’re creating a culture where every individual is valued for their unique contributions and that they are able to achieve their highest potential.

For working parents, and that often tends to be working mothers, formal flexibility is very important. So we have a number of different programs allowing individuals to work reduced hours, work from home, or arrange job-sharing. One such program that we’ve been really excited about, Full Circle, allows parents to off-ramp from their careers for up to five years, and then return to the firm. Individuals that enter this program are assigned a PwC coach and have access to all the training that the firm provides to keep their skills current. They stay connected with the firm. And when they choose to come back, they can.

More than half of our new hires are women. And more than 30% are minorities. A lot of our focus, now that we are attracting diverse individuals to the firm, is continuing not only to retain them, but really getting these individuals into leadership positions. 

We have a mobile workforce engaged with our counterparts and clients around the globe. It’s challenging, because diversity doesn’t mean the same thing across the globe. Certain dimensions of diversity, for example, gender, resonate. Beyond that and a few others, you really have to look at what elements of diversity become important in a given jurisdiction. In Nigeria, dealing with race is not the issue, but dealing with tribal differences is very important. You want to make sure it’s relevant. That’s why we continue to talk about cultural dexterity, because that resonates no matter where you are and what the specific facts may be in those local markets. 

Overall, looking at the big picture, the initiatives that we’ve put into place focus on flexibility. The way we look at it is one size doesn’t fit all. 

 

Supervising Older Workers

Peter Cappelli
George W. Taylor Professor of Management, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania 

What do leaders need to know about older workers?

The evidence on discrimination for older workers is that it’s a bigger issue than for any other group, bigger than for gender, bigger than race. I think the discrimination is just so prevalent that people don’t even recognize it. It affects primarily people getting jobs in the first place, but the scope of claims of age discrimination has been rising in the downturn, because there are more age-related dismissals. 

There are also problems for older people who are employed. Performance appraisals of older employees tend to be worse, independent of actual performance. And problems of performance are attributed to age for older workers where they’re not for younger employees. 

Data show older employees perform better on almost all dimensions of performance. Absenteeism is lower. Turnover is lower. Interpersonal skills are better. Job performance in general is better. The only thing that younger people do better on, among any of the tasks that might even loosely be related to jobs, is solving novel problems under time pressure without assistance like calculators. So that’s basically taking SAT tests. While we obsess over the differences between Generations X, Y, and Z, we’re ignoring what to do to tap into a huge and growing population of older workers. 

There are structural management practices one can use to avoid unconscious biases in efforts to recruit people. But I’d say the biggest issues have to do with direct management. Having a younger supervisor manage an older subordinate is in some ways a reversal of the historic norms. In some cases, it makes the older subordinates uncomfortable. But we know it makes the younger supervisors uncomfortable. And this is the heart of much of the discrimination; younger supervisors say, “I don’t see how I can manage somebody who has been doing this job longer than I’ve been.” Or they say, “They’ve been doing this job longer than I have and they’re still doing it—there’s got to be something wrong with them.” 

For quite a while, the military has had the challenge of young second lieutenants being in charge of older, experienced sergeants. What they’ve learned is that the second lieutenants have really got to manage with more of a partnership model in mind, recognizing the expertise of the sergeant, consulting them, and making decisions jointly. 

At the same time, the supervisor is still in charge. Often one of the problems we see with younger supervisors is that they just abdicate management of older subordinates. We know that younger supervisors tend not to give as much praise to older subordinates, and we know that they tend to be biased in the attributions they make concerning performance. Older subordinates are less likely to be told that the problem could be fixed by training. There’s more likely to be a conclusion this is just dispositional—“You’re just a bad worker.” 

The engagement model that I’m describing for how to manage people is a model which pretty much works everywhere. The difference is that with younger subordinates, you can more easily get away with supervisory practices which we could describe as not so good, like just telling people, “Do this because I said so.” You can’t do that with more experienced subordinates.