I’m going to sound provocative, but I think it’s time to rethink diversity.  We’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for too long but not really making significant inroads.  Just look at the facts:

  • In January 2016, the UK employment rate among working age disabled people was 46.5% (4.1 million), compared to 84% of non-disabled people
  • The 2018 Gender Pay Gap report showed us that Almost eight in 10 companies and public-sector bodies pay men more than women it was revealed
  • A 2017 Race Disparity Audit found that the unemployment rate for black, Asian and minority ethnic people (8 per cent) is nearly double that of white British adults (4.6 per cent)

I’m suggesting that we’re tackling this in the wrong way because we’re missing the underlying issues that drive human behaviour.

Let me illustrate this.  An organisation I use to work for spent time and effort on Diversity & Inclusion programmes and activities.  Developing policies and procedures, then tracking and monitoring how well they were working; and spending time and effort to convince their Board of the benefits these programmes were bringing.  But fundamentally, the culture of the organisation disliked diversity of thought.  Much was made about “cultural fit” of new hires, advancement was hugely dependant on you “fitting” into their High Potential Model; finding alternative ways of doing things was spoken about but frowned upon in reality.  Although they said they wanted to develop more diversity in their workforce, but only including people who fundamentally thought in the same way as the rest of the organisation….

I’m suggesting that instead of focusing on diversity in the traditional sense of age, race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, we should consider a more powerful and nuanced kind of diversity – Diversity of Thought, or Cognitive Diversity.  What do I mean by this?  It’s based on the idea that our thinking is shaped by our culture, background, experiences, and personalities.  Bringing together people who think differently from one another—for example, analytical types with creative ones, “big-picture” folks with the detail-oriented ones—can create conversations that stimulate new ideas and drive efficiency. In fact, more than simply bringing people together – but actively looking for different people, allowing them to think differently and embracing their ideas and differences.

In a world that is becoming more complex, requiring ever greater agility and creative thinking, who wouldn’t want to benefit from some more different perspectives, and capabilities? Never has our potential workforce been more diverse, and that diversity will simply continue in the future; so, isn’t this the perfect opportunity to re-examine diversity policies and ask what workplace diversity really should mean in the 21st century?

What does this mean in reality?  Remember the concept of Psychological Safety?  Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina found that when we feel safe, humour increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity. To help develop this feeling of Psychological Safety (and so Diversity of Thought) organisations need to let go of the assumption that there is “a right way of doing things” and instead consider a culture where people feel accepted, are comfortable contributing ideas, and actively seek to learn from each other.  If we can do this, then some of the advantages this could bring include

  • Reduce “groupthink” and expert overconfidence
  • Increase the scale of new insights
  • Help organisations identify the right employees who can best tackle their most pressing problems

And this is the best bit.  Nurturing a culture where Diversity of Thought is embraced, will lead to increased gender, age, race, and disability diversity.  The more open we are to hearing other perspectives, and the more comfortable our organisational cultures become with this, the more likely that people of all colours, creeds, genders will want to join – and then stay and grow in the organisation.  Organisations that don’t manage for Diversity of Thought eventually may find themselves at a disadvantage in the future as the best talent will look for organisation that can fully leverage their capabilities.

Now I’m not saying by considering Diversity of Thought will mean that the representation of historically underrepresented individuals will increase throughout all levels of an organisation. We’ll still need to focus on promoting participation of women and ethnic minorities at executive levels in organisations. But without recognising and embracing Diversity of Thought, the success of more traditional diversity and inclusion programmes will be limited.

It’s those smart organisations who will soon realise they now have an opportunity to introduce more powerful and nuanced approaches to human diversity; namely, they can begin to harness Diversity of Thought!