Does your strong business culture create a barrier to diversity?

Does your strong business culture create a barrier to diversity?

CEOs generally recognise that having a strong organisational culture with clear values helps their competitive advantage. However, by its very nature, a strong culture is likely to be more attractive to some employees than others. This can appear at odds with the wealth of evidence now indicating that a highly diverse workforce facilitates commercial success.

It’s important in considering diversity to understand what it really means. Most businesses understand that increasing the breadth of your talent pool adds new perspectives and may provide a better match with your customer base. Leading organisations regularly monitor the make-up of their leadership and employee population. By examining characteristics such as gender, age, race or disability, they aim to understand and address low areas of representation. However, even if all of the usual boxes are ticked, key aspects of diversity might still be overlooked – for example motivation and working style.

Employee engagement and motivation is a well-researched and well-documented area of study. Psychologists have recognised for decades that individuals have different drivers. That’s why leadership development programmes now train leaders to manage diverse individuals rather than teams. The use of psychometric tools (MBTI, SDI, Insights, DISC, etc.) has become common practice, helping organisations to understand different motivators, behaviours, strengths and approaches, and supporting their recruitment and development activities. These tools describe different ‘types’. My particular favourite, the Strengths Deployment Inventory (SDI) recognises that individuals are motivated by one or more of the following priorities: relationships, achieving results or working autonomously.

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”
Stephen R. Covey

Research into team performance shows that the most effective teams are those whose participants represent a range of strengths and approaches. Yet at an organisational level this can be ignored or become diluted in favour of people who ‘fit the mould’.

This brings us back to the question of strong corporate cultures. At their best, organisational cultures create the USP of the organisation and can be the very reason for their success. However, at their worst they can create a restrictive environment where an individual either ‘fits in’ or doesn’t. Leadership can overlook the strengths of an individual who doesn’t fit the usual type, or even penalise them.

Cultures are often created (by design or default) by the most influential people in the business, usually the leadership team. Despite the many measures they may have taken to improve diversity in their organisations, their business policies and practices and their unconscious bias can create other, invisible barriers.

Take for example replacing fixed seating with a buzzing, open plan, sit-where-you-please set up. That can work well for those who relish change and variety and are keen to network. But it can equally be viewed with horror by those who work better in a quiet environment where they can reflect and concentrate without distraction. Or how about banning email in favour of verbal communication and instant messaging, as French tech company Atos did recently? That’s good for those with well-developed powers of verbal influence. Not so much if you find it easier to present your case in writing. What about an embargo on home working as implemented by Yahoo? Might those practices not also be discriminatory, if we consider the different working styles that lead to people performing at their best? And how about upward career paths that steer individuals into people management, rather than promoting them for their technical expertise? While the best reward systems are straightforward and easy to understand, their very simplicity denies the diverse ways in which individuals are motivated. All these practices will appeal to some employees, but rarely to everyone.

So, if businesses want to achieve true diversity and realise its benefits, they will have to think more broadly than the reports, graphs and charts monitoring the usual, obvious characteristics.

At DRIVE we help organisations understand both the traditional and less obvious aspects of diversity. We work with our clients to create a strong culture that differentiates them from the competition, while developing organisational practices that welcome different ways of thinking, in the pursuit of a real competitive edge.

How does your organisation leverage diversity?

Written by Anna Vorster, Director