Fresh fruits

Culture and Diversity

Does your strong business culture create a barrier to diversity?

Organisational culture is a core element of many organisations’ strategic plans. It is generally recognised that having a strong organisational culture with clear values helps to attract, recruit and retain the top talent needed for competitive advantage. However, by its very nature, the portrayal of a strong culture is likely to be more attractive to some employees than others. 

Even in the 2020s, when I talk to people about their career plans I still hear all too frequently ‘I can’t apply for that role because I don’t have a degree’, or ‘I don’t have the right face / name / accent / education to fit into that organisation’, or ‘I’m not technical / creative / polished enough to be successful at interview’. That sense of not being ‘enough’ is unfortunately a common theme. This isn’t new, but with the current financial climate impacting many industries, individuals need to feel confident applying for jobs in different roles and sectors. Also, with diversity being the pre-requisite of innovative and agile organisations, now more than ever, businesses would benefit from increasing the breadth of their talent pool in order to gain new perspectives and navigate effectively through the changing marketplace.  

It’s important in considering diversity to understand what it really means. Leading organisations already regularly monitor the make-up of their leadership and employee populations and support a range of diversity and inclusion programmes and initiatives. By examining characteristics such as ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, they aim to understand and address low areas of representation. Organisations that succeed in attracting people from socially diverse backgrounds have the advantage of a wider range of experiences and perspectives than those that don’t, which, when harnessed, can lead to exciting new ideas for improving products, services and customer experiences, as well as improving internal processes too. However, if the benefits of social diversity aren’t openly valued and different perspectives actively sought, socially diverse organisations may still fall short of the truly diverse thinking needed for maximum creativity, innovation and agility because they haven’t overcome the prevalence of ‘groupthink’ often found in organisations with inherently strong cultures.

Groupthink is when members of a team or working party become aligned in their thinking and form a consensus view. This brings harmony to the group and a sense of inclusion and membership and is commonly found in organisations with strong cultures; however, it works against the objective of challenging the status quo and bringing new ideas to the table. Groupthink often occurs in organisations where influential people at all levels display similar personality traits which are then perceived as the most valued traits within that organisation. The benefits of a socially diverse workforce can be diluted where this is the case. What is missing in this situation is consideration for cognitive or thought diversity, possibly because healthy debate – the airing of opposing ideas – isn’t encouraged as it might represent, to some, unwelcome challenge or conflict.

Cognitive diversity refers to differences in personality traits, thinking styles and motivational drivers, which manifest as different strengths and behavioural approaches. Social diversity can be achieved without cognitive diversity, and vice versa, however, organisations that achieve both are better placed to break away from old traditions, encourage fresh ideas and drive meaningful, forward thinking change needed for competitive advantage. These are the organisations that stand the best chance of ongoing evolution and success in the longer term. 

Whilst there appears to be a compelling argument for organisations to focus on improving all aspects of diversity, achieving true diversity remains a significant challenge for most businesses. We are all neurologically wired to feel safer and more comfortable with people who look, sound and behave like us. This is why managers have a tendency to recruit people with a style most like them. It takes a confident manager with a good understanding of unconscious bias to hire someone who is different, even when they understand the benefit of complementary skillsets, working styles and the value that different experiences can bring. This explains why strong organisational cultures have typically, traditionally, been mainly homogenous. 

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

Managing a diverse team can be challenging, as individuals will bring a range of views and conflict is more common, at least initially. However, when diverse perspectives, preferences and approaches are appreciated and constructive disagreement is recognised as essential to achieving a higher shared purpose, psychological safety can also be achieved, and these diverse teams become the most exciting and fulfilling groups to work within, as well as the highest performing. 

Being aware of the need for diversity when forming a team is a good start for any organisation, however, as we have seen too often, recruiting just one or two people with different styles or set of skills tends not to make any difference as their voice is drowned out by the volume of more traditional views, leaving the individual feeling frustrated, disenfranchised and aware of their position as as outlier. For true diversity to be achieved, leaders and managers throughout the organisation need to demonstrate an open minded approach to new ways of working, place value on varied experiences and reinforce the importance of developing the behavioural skills needed to work well within diverse team. Often, this requires a manager to demonstrate both emotional intelligence and a good level of self-confidence.

Many organisations are now using psychometric tools to identify different cognitive ‘types’ and are using them to support recruitment and development activities. These tools can help individuals recognise and appreciate difference and turn potential conflict situations into opportunities for healthy debate and new perspectives. 

With mass business closures and unemployment in some sectors, more needs to be done to recognise the opportunity rather than the threat associated with individual difference and for organisations to rethink their company branding, job adverts, interview questions, selection and promotion processes as well as their learning and development programmes to ensure they consciously challenge long held perceptions of ‘the best fit’. By recognising and reflecting the value and absolute necessity of diversity in company strategies and practices, organisational cultures will naturally become stronger.


DRIVE Diversity 

At DRIVE we help organisations understand both the traditional and less obvious aspects of diversity. We work with our clients to create a strong, inclusive culture and develop organisational practices that welcome different ways of thinking. Harnessing the latest tools, we provide insight and guidance on how our clients can enrich their talent pools in the pursuit of innovation and in order to strengthen their position in the marketplace.