Eight Ways to Unlock the Positive Power of Diversity in Your Business

18 October 2022

WBS MBA alumnus and the founding partner of BlueCloud Health, Steven Adjei, shares the importance and value of diversity in every business.

Diversity. It’s all over the news, media, and socials. Inclusion. Diversity. Racial Harmony.  These are now universal buzzwords. 

But we still live in a very tense environment where demonstrations on race, sexuality, and gender are on the rise. Many ethnic minorities complain that they are being used as ‘trophies’ to tick the diversity box, like being persuaded to be included in the company photoshoot to give the pictures a gloss over ‘show’ on diversity. 

But such niceties don’t usually wash. 

Minorities see through this, and though they may play along, the real power of diversity is lost when we go through these surface-level tick-box exercises. 

When sought out correctly, diversity does have the power to positively change and enhance every aspect of a company’s performance - finances, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and ultimately, company harmony. 

But it all starts within.  Deep, deep down in the crevices of our hearts. So how can we authentically foster diversity and harness it to unleash the hidden potential in our businesses?

1. Search your own heart and brutally confront your prejudices about diversity:

As the CEO or leader, the buck stops with you. And your staff and employees aren’t stupid. They will see through the tick boxes, surface trophies, and empty vases you present, and consequently, they will not bring their authentic selves to work, inevitably adversely affecting performance.  You need to do some serious soul-searching and confront openly the brutal truths hidden deep in your subconscious on racism, sexism, faith and religion, and any form of bigotry. How do you know you’ve achieved this? When you’re the same in private as you are in public. 

2. Be open to learning and avoid stereotyping

This flows from the previous point. In a recent Harvard Business Review article: ‘How leaders can better support Muslim women at work, the writer highlights how differences among Muslim women need to be acknowledged: ‘instead of assuming all Muslim women are the same, ask how your colleague prefers to be greeted or wait to see whether she extends her hand or offers a hug’. 

You already have the best FREE teachers if you are willing to learn. Your employees. 

3. Make reasonable adjustments to foster authenticity:

Devout Muslims usually pray five times a day, some of which may fall during working hours. Single mothers with young children may need time to pick up their kids from school if they have no carers, especially if they have no family. One of my employees is an Eastern European single mother with a young son who she needs to check on regularly during working hours. We offered to give our gay employees a few hours of paid leave during a local pride parade. One of our employees struggles with customer-facing roles due to a hearing impediment and being on the autism spectrum. So, we have agreed to limit her customer-facing roles and allow her to do most of the back-end operational stuff, where she flourishes. Make reasonable changes to allow better integration.

4. Ruthlessly police and eliminate any form of bigotry, bias, racism, and sexism right from the beginning:

In his New York bestselling book, The Earned Life, author, and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith talks about the concept of referent groups. It is the principle that each of us feels emotionally and intellectually connected to a specific group of the population. Knowledge of a person’s referent group, who they want to impress, whose respect they crave, is crucial to understanding why they talk, think, and behave the way they do. The key is this: you don’t have to agree with their referent group, but if you appreciate the influence of such groups, then you are less likely to be astonished by their adherents’ choices or dismiss them as ‘idiots’.  It’s your job as a leader or manager to fiercely protect the employee and their choice of referent groups and make sure everyone else does. And that should be guarded ferociously, fairly, and wisely. Because your job, as a leader, is to drive company performance and make sure every single employee can bring their authentic self to work. And a big part of that is to make sure every single employee’s ‘allegiance’ to their referent group is protected, heard, and respected, but not at the expense of another’s. 

5. Embrace the culture, language, and milestones of each individual

The culture in the office needs to foster an atmosphere of genuine, non-judgmental curiosity. I call this authentic curiosity. It should be about their religion, culture, orientation, -their individual stories, and their experiences. This is perhaps the most crucial tenet to enable true diversity to flourish. 

This curiosity fosters what I call the power of the ‘AND’. English AND Muslim. Ghanaian AND English.  Bisexual AND a COVID nurse. And because they are made to feel proud of their culture, experiences, and background, they inadvertently invite their friends, families, and wider community as customers. For instance, up to 35% of our new customers have been ethnic minorities even though our work is in a city that is 93% white, and we have a larger than normal population of LGBTQ customers. 

6. Encourage 360-degree integration:

One thing that kills company culture very quickly is the allowing of what I call ‘sub-cultures’ to form within the company. Humans, like water, gravitate towards the path of least resistance. Integration is hard work. And, if the culture of integration is not actively fostered, it will quickly die. As leaders, we must not allow sub-cultures to form where people of similar backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. are allowed to permanently ‘huddle’ together at the expense of everybody else. This is controversial, but integration and diversity work both ways. 360 degrees. For instance, racist jokes whether from ethnic minorities or not, are forbidden.

7. Recognise and protect your base: 

Japan’s buildings in earthquake-prone areas are some of the most resilient in the world, and a recent BBC article explores why. It’s because of the capacity of the buildings to dance, as the ground moves beneath them. In other words, the foundation is strong, but the buildings are agile. For diversity to work, the foundation of the company must be universally strongly rooted in the values of the company. These values must unite every single employee irrespective of experience, orientation, race, gender, or background. 

So paradoxically, a strong uniform foundation is the only way to establish true diversity. 

8. Unity does not imply Uniformity: 

Unity signifies the singularity of purpose within an organisation. Uniformity is not necessary to achieve unity. Forcing uniformity, in thought, actions and deeds is a sure one-way street to inauthenticity, and by extension to resentment, which will inadvertently affect performance. As Jeff Gennette, CEO of Macy’s who is openly gay said in a recent interview with TIME magazine, ‘Equity is a very important component of how you get to an inclusive environment. An executive team is like a stadium. Who’s on the playing field making the calls, and driving strategy? You must have an inclusive environment where everybody feels like “I’m showing up with all my ideas and experiences’’. Until everyone feels valued, you’re not going to maximize the potential of your brand that’s serving the most diverse population this country has ever had. 

In my own experience, wherever I have coached, consulted, or worked, the results of harnessing diversity have also been reflected in every single customer survey.  Positive reviews have gone through the roof. And staff regularly give feedback on how fulfilled, valued, and happy they feel. And this spills over invariably into the company wallet. The proper use of diversity has the power to transform a company for good in every single metric. But it needs to be harnessed right. 

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