Barbra Streisand once said, “Imagine how boring life would be if we were all the same.” Workplace diversity is good for business. Customers and employees expect an organisation and its leadership to strive to reflect the communities it serves. Diversity of thought drives innovation and having people around the table who have different life experience is vital in understanding the risks and opportunities around you.
A diverse workforce and leadership are a key part of being fit for purpose and fit for the future—building in empathy, perspective and understanding. It is becoming clearer every day that stakeholders across society expect businesses to understand and respect their varied experiences and perspectives. In a context of culture wars and rapid social change, good decision-making requires the input of people with different points of view.
Work on diversity rightly focuses on protected and under-represented characteristics. When talking about diversity, we talk in terms of age, gender, sexuality, disability and ethnicity. I would argue that socioeconomic background is also worth thinking about—and tracking.
The real opportunity, though, is not just to make sure that you have the right faces in place, but that you have a culture and ways of working that encourage diversity of thought, challenge, and make the most of the empathy and imagination that comes with varying life experience.
It is all too easy to recruit in our own image, or to surround yourself with people who make you feel comfortable. A board can have people of different gender, age, or ethnicity, but if they have all been to the same school or university—or been shaped by a similar career path—then that lack of diversity of thought is the path to groupthink. The boardroom becomes an echo chamber: this will inhibit strategic thinking and increase the risk of unethical decision-making and practice. If everyone is thinking the same then, by definition, there is a lack of challenge.
A long, slow road
There have been some positive steps taken to improve diversity at senior levels in business, but there is still much more to do. The Davies report on women on boards mobilised real change. The Parker Review found that, at the end of 2022, 96% of FTSE 100 companies had at least one director from an ethnic minority background on their board.
However, earlier this year, the European gender diversity barometer compiled by Ethics & Boards and ecoDa found that less than a quarter of business executives across Europe, and only 7% of CEOs, are female.
Setting targets is one tactic if you want to mobilise measurable change quickly, but it will never be enough on its own to achieve real transformation. There is a risk that the new recruits have a very similar background and experience to those already around the table. Encouraging diversity of thought and ideas alongside widening representation of protected characteristics is vital.
Culture matters, and an open, ethical culture is one that will make the most of the insights and experience of all of the company’s people. That is what makes all the difference to a company’s chances for longevity and success.
Building a strong ethical culture is work that is never done. It starts with clear values and purpose, articulated by leaders and co-owned throughout the organisation. It requires robust and honest evaluation, through both insights and data.
Effective ethical leaders are on top of the numbers and metrics, and also listen out for anecdotal feedback that alerts them to issues before they become problems. They are open to challenge and feedback, and know their own blind spots.
No leader can empathise with every customer or have an in-depth understanding of every professional discipline in their organisation, but the best will surround themselves with people who can give them honest feedback, good and bad. The wider the experience and perspectives of your top team, the better your picture will be of what is really going on around you.
Perspective is all
Your stakeholders and wider communities can also offer insight and challenge. I have seen business leaders return to the office and rethink their strategy and product offering, having visited a job centre or a school in a deprived community, because that engagement had offered them a new perspective.
Equally, if your business wants to inspire young people to enter your industry, it makes all the difference if those students can see themselves reflected in your workplace, and can see that people like them can succeed and thrive.
The companies that really benefit from diversity of thought in the workplace are those really making the most of diversity, equity and inclusion. They will have clear and embedded ‘speak up and listen up’ processes in place, and leaders and managers open to dialogue and feedback. They will have clear and visible accountabilities for oversight of ethics and culture at board level, and will have reviewed nomination, recruitment and succession processes to ensure an open and ethical culture lasts for the long term.
Promote and build leaders at every level of your organisation who don’t merely tolerate difference, but actively respect those with different perspectives. Make the most of a diversity of thought, experience and ability to build businesses fit for the future.