Invisible Differences, Major Impact. The Value of Diversity of Thought in the Workplace
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with a number of leaders to help guide and support their efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within their organizations. But many of these organizations, although committed to DEI efforts, have a blind spot. It’s not surprising, because it’s invisible.
When I speak with organizational leaders and their teams, I often ask them to reflect on the definition of diversity shared by Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., a visionary, pioneer, and thought leader in the area of cultural diversity. In his book Beyond Race and Gender: Unleashing the Power of Your Total Workforce by Managing Diversity, he asserts that diversity includes everyone, not specific subsets of your company’s employees. Diversity encompasses the similarities and differences among people, and the related tensions and complexities. The only way we know something is different is because we have some similarity that binds us together as a group.
We may be working toward a common goal but have differences in opinion about how to achieve it. This is what is known as diversity of thought, and it is essential to creating innovation, fueling collaboration, and having meaningful conflict to meet the needs of customers and stakeholders. Note the phrase “meaningful conflict.” This is not arguing for the sake of arguing and is not the same as differences in work style, which is also a part of the DEI equation.
Defining Diversity of Thought
Let’s define it clearly. Diversity of thought refers to the range of mindsets, thought processes, and perspectives that can be found within an organization’s workforce. You might not be familiar with the phrase, but you’ve likely encountered scenarios in which diversity of thought was a distinct operational element. That may have looked like a cross-functional team assigned to work on a project or product development exercise. The very reason you might bring together an employee from research and development, one from production, one from customer service, and one from sales is that they each have a different view of the organization and its stakeholders. While they are all focused on a singular vision for their company, they have different departmental and individual goals and prioritize different ways of achieving them.
Sometimes, senior corporate leaders witness dialogue that occurs between employees who have different approaches to solving a problem or meeting a challenge and they believe that there is a lack of alignment within the organization. However, not being aligned would look like disagreement about company direction or vision. If your organization decided that your focus for the year is growing apples, but some leaders believe that instead the company should be growing oranges only, that is a misalignment in goals and business activities. That is cause for concern.
Cultivating Diversity of Thought
But cultivating diversity of thought is both a leadership challenge and a leadership obligation. You want that diversity of thought among team members because it leads to challenging of the status quo, higher level thinking, and more engagement among team members because they see that their perspective is valued.
Diversity of thought is not just part of an effective DEI strategy – it is, in many ways, the direct result of an effective DEI strategy.
On my drive to a meeting recently, I noticed a lot of diversity among people on the road. I’m not thinking of their physical appearance or that of their vehicles. Although there was a great deal of visible diversity there. Each was going somewhere, and when I encountered them, we were all going in the same direction. Some were eating or drinking, some were dancing or singing along to music, some were speeding and weaving in and out of lanes while others stayed to the right the entire time at a steady pace. Their goal was the same: to get to their destination. But they had different perspectives about the way in which they were getting there.
Now imagine if this same group of drivers were all going to the same place of work. And they gathered in a meeting room to talk about what their company planned to achieve that quarter. Would they all propose doing the same things in the same ways in the same order? It’s highly unlikely. And that’s where we, as leaders, need to emphasize the common thread of what we are trying to achieve, and build shared understanding. Then we can embrace the differences in how each team member wants to approach the work and enable the robust discussions that these differences create.
Leaders, try incorporating these five strategies for managing diversity of thought among your teams. You’ll find by utilizing them, you can better harness the power of differing perspectives and arrive at quality decisions that reflect multiple viewpoints. Your customers and stakeholders will benefit, along with your team members.
Five Strategies for Managing Diversity of Thought
- Recognize differences – Value and elevate unique differences among employees.
- Recognize inequities – Who is overlooked, avoided, ignored or talked over? Make space for their input and ideas.
- Foster development – Create opportunities for growth and to demonstrate each person’s value.
- Seek input publicly – Make it known that feedback and dialogue are welcome.
- Never stop – Make inclusion of all perspectives a part of your management approach.
Consider this: what if a work group reaches agreement about an idea and wants to move forward with its execution. But there is one individual in the group who has specific knowledge about why this idea is likely to be problematic for one stakeholder group. This knowledge is based on their experience working with these stakeholders, but they do not speak up because they do not feel like they will be heard or that the courage it takes to share a differing perspectives will not be valued or considered. This could lead to a company blunder that impacts revenue and reputation. How do you avoid that scenario? Ensure that your DEI efforts include behavioral and thought diversity and a clear connection to your company’s core values.