There is no dobt that diversity is important. We know it is a path to unity, creativity, and peaceful conflict resolution. But in our hurry to embrace demographic diversity we may be overlooking another important quality. We may be missing diversity of thought.
— Diversity is more than how we look, it is how we think. —
In over 40 years of combined military and government service, I have received a lot of training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. I can honestly say that I have never heard a discussion about diversity of thought that went beyond its power to generate new ideas. The standard training focuses on a simple logic — when we brainstorm new ideas, more different people mean more different ideas.
Makes sense, but if that is all we expect, we are probably missing out on some valuable opportunities.
Let’s imagine we had a diverse team gathered together to solve a complex problem. If the team had similar ways of thinking, regardless of their racial or ethnic diversity, they would probably not generate diverse solutions. On the other hand, if a team has a lot of solutions but we do not allow them to be heard, we have lost an opportunity as well.
Fortunately, we can improve the odds.
We can recognize that ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity inherently bring new ways of thinking to the table. Being different means that we will naturally think differently in some way. The issue is not whether cognitive diversity is present, it is whether we allow it to express itself. I could have a diverse team, but unwritten power rules and organizational norms could limit who can talk and who is listened to. A lack of new ideas may not mean there is actually a lack of new ideas, it may simply mean that there is a lack of voice.
— We must allow others to be heard. —
We must shift the communication rules to allow diversity of thought all the time. We know that diversity creates new ideas when we brainstorm together. But we must recognize that we have a mental image of brainstorming that allows it. We expect new ideas, so we allow new ideas. Unfortunately, the gate for open expression can be quickly closed when we are a different setting and the power in the room is not so equally balanced.
I had a friend who, as a junior employee, voiced a contrary opinion in a meeting. Afterwards, he was taken aside by a senior leader who told him point blank, “We don’t talk like that here.” He quickly learned that he had no voice in meetings. The best idea in the world will go nowhere if it cannot be heard. We must keep our ears open all the time or else we will not hear the voice of others.
— We will not speak if we do not feel safe. —
No matter how receptive we are to hearing others, we cannot hear them if they do not talk and they will not talk if they do not feel safe. We may fool ourselves. We may think that we allow others to share new or unorthodox ideas, but if they don’t think so, it will not happen. The reason is simple. People, especially in organizational settings, are risk adverse.
Everyone as a finely tuned radar about when it is safe and not safe to talk. It doesn’t matter what we think, if others do not feel safe, it is not safe. We must create an environment where people know they are safe. We must cultivate an environment where people know they can speak up, ask questions, and express dissent. We have to set the example. We must set patterns for openness, listening, and acceptance that let people know — really know — that is safe to speak.
In the end, we find this simple fact. Diversity of people creates diversity of thought, but we can only take advantage of it when the communication and power environment allow people to be heard.
James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life — whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.
For more insights see my books and blog at https://www.jamesmcginley.com.
YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbsIoVmbTlMZFNqv_1vCu9Q