To create a diverse workplace, look beyond demographics

Rachel Stewart Johnson, Ph.D.

Head of L&D | Psychologist | Driven by communications about human behavior in Work

Does diversity = demographics? When leaders first turn their attention to the topic of diversity in the workplace, they begin these conversations by taking stock of numbers. And when we think of what groups may be relevant in this “numbers” story, we likely land upon just a few factors: gender, race, and age.

Research backs the value of creating organizations with a mix of contributors across those three categories. For example, DDI International reported in its Global Leadership Forecast 2018 that companies with higher levels of gender diversity tend to be more likely to experience sustained, profitable growth. They’re also apt to self-assess in positive ways, believing themselves to be agile and more willing to embrace short-term failure for the sake of long-term innovation.

This research led DDI to an interesting conclusion. The strategic approach taken by these organizations, DDI’s analysts argue, “relies not on meeting any single demographic target alone, but in integrating diverse perspectives into people, product, and business decision-making companywide.”

This raises the question: could demographic diversity produce beneficial byproducts that cultivate a more inclusive workplace across the board? And what might that mean?


Diversity is more than tracking demographic percentages

An answer starts with widening the definition of diversity. Beyond checking off demographic boxes, “diversity” can mean creating spaces in which several voices regularly have the opportunity to be heard. And continuing in that frame of mind, a diverse workplace not only accommodates but relies upon the contributions of numerous personalities, including contrasting thinking and working styles, problem-solving strategies, and communication preferences.

Think about how this might work. A project staffed by “changemakers”, people eager to dream big and explore new ways of operating, might end up disregarding the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They may promote unrealistic ideas, act too quickly, and alienate partners or customers along the way. But combine that changemaker corps with individuals who are keen on implementing proven methods, weigh factors before making a decision, and prefer a steady pace, and you have the potential for a team that is both prudent and innovative.


Thinking about diversity within an organizational “personality”

Organizations routinely seek out and promote core competencies among their workforce. A limitation of these wish lists is they often include characteristics that are rarely well-developed in a single individual. For example, having both a playful spirit and a focused, can-do approach, while desirable from an employer’s perspective, represents both higher and lower openness in one person. “Openness” is considered by many behavioral scientists to be a major dimension of personality, and refers to how one responds to new ideas, information, and ways of doing things. When we widen the scope of diversity to include personality dimensions like these, we can then achieve teams that collectively meet competency goals. The team incorporates both: coworker Leticia provides the playful spirit, while colleague Lamar brings determined focus.


Start with demographics, and the rest will follow?

As mentioned, starting with demographics might be a preliminary step to achieving this wider level of diversity and inclusion. Let’s say “Company Cloud” has a diverse workforce in terms of the ages of key contributors. Joan, a director familiar with three decades of product roll-outs, favors a conservative approach to business development. Meanwhile her colleague Maxine, immersed in an idealistic youthful culture, promotes change and disruption. Company Cloud’s leadership sees that by advancing talent from a range of ages, other types of diversity -- in thought, process, priorities, and perspectives, for example -- follow. But this downstream approach is far from the only way to address these markers of diversity.


Assessment data uncovers sources of diversity

Tools that allow employers to understand the personalities of people in their applicant pools and on their payrolls can help. These assessments are most effective when they break down personality into its component parts. Side-by-side profiles facilitate team-building because they highlight where clashes could flare up, where “hive mind” might take over, and who might be a great project partner for another. When we have that personality diagnostic, so to speak, we gain insights that extend beyond what we can tell from demographic data -- and that unlocks a new layer of diversity potential.


Understanding who we are helps address bias

This also helps mitigate the effects of personal biases that are based on group identities. These biases can muddy the employment life cycle from the pre-hire stage through development and promotion decisions. An interviewer, for example, brings a certain set of expectations to an exchange with a young Asian female applicant, and those are likely to differ from those of a middle-aged white man with a thick accent. With the benefit of personality data, an interviewer can move beyond biases to ask well-informed questions with the potential to speak meaningfully to real performance.

As research continues to provide evidence of the value of prioritizing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the time has come to address diversity in broader, data-driven ways. We are all more than census data, and our approach to achieving diversity should reflect the many ways in which we can use our unique sets of talents, habits, backgrounds and more to make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.


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