In business, as in biology, strength lies in difference, not similarity. According to McKinsey, the most ethnically and gender-diverse companies outperform the least diverse. In today’s global workforce, it doesn’t take government policies to make us see that increased diversity is a strategic imperative for economic gain and growth.
While I believe in the concept of diversity, I don’t think it’s well understood globally because it is often associated with headcount quotas. I prefer the term inclusion. A company of distinct cultures and genders won’t activate those different viewpoints unless its leaders deliberately focus on including all of them.
Do you welcome alternative thoughts, ideas, constructs, education, logic and feelings at your company? Noticing how people perceive not just themselves but others is a pivotal first step to leading an inclusive workforce. Those impressions and judgments inform interactions, which will either spark collaboration or create distance. It’s on you to figure out how to integrate the differences, regardless of people’s backgrounds.
Inclusion is the new diversity.
By embracing complementary differences, you can enable more holistic, integrated and comprehensive solutions. As leader, it’s your job to create a culture that catalyses more opportunities for inclusion.
Hiring people from different cultures and backgrounds is relatively easy; fostering inclusivity is much more difficult. Certainly, you’ve got your work cut out for you. But here are three good places to start.
- Stop assuming your way is the right way.
According to a YouGov survey, 53 percent of Americans participating in the study said they considered the United States the greatest country on Earth. I see this over and over again in my coaching work outside the States: American expatriates overreaching to “fix” things, rather than merely sitting quietly, observing, as their first step to adjusting to a new geographical locale.
Take a client of mine, for example, a VP of marketing from a European country working in China. Marketing in Western Europe is mature and sophisticated compared to that of China. The approaches couldn’t be more different. China is all about building relationships. In fact, most Chinese business owners prefer to learn about potential suppliers in person at events or conferences.
My client said he tried in vain to overlay his expertise in a market that was nothing like what he knew. This backfired. Things only began to turn around when he started asking, “What would you do?”
When you find yourself trying to fix something or someone that is not broken, just stop. Nobody wants to be fixed. The way through is a blended global approach drawing on localised elements.
- Make it easy and safe to share ideas.
Just because you hold a team meeting doesn’t mean people will speak up. If you do all the talking, your team’s expertise is wasted. A mix of diverse perspectives enhances creativity, leading to more innovative, instinctive and surprising breakthroughs.
Nevertheless, it can still be difficult to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. To illustrate: One of my smartest colleagues really struggled with English. In meetings, her colleagues talked over her, assuming her silence equated to her having nothing to say. Everyone missed multiple opportunities to spark on her thoughts.
You are responsible for creating space and opening the floor to all viewpoints. Next time you walk into a meeting, say, “Today, I’m just going to listen; Jack, you’re leading the meeting.” By disrupting your role of being in charge, you teach people to prepare and be on their toes. They can’t hide, which forces them to integrate their ideas into the conversation.
- Maintain open-door accessibility.
Sixty percent of employees responding to a 2015 Virgin Pulse survey said relationships with their employers affected their productivity in a major way. Of course, employees can’t really “talk to you about anything” — which is why stating you have an open-door policy excites some and makes others cringe. For some, having access to the most senior person boosts their influence. Others might view it as a way to self-promote, while others might be afraid it’s a trap.
In an often-quoted Harvard Business Review study involving almost 200 people at a leading tech company, two researchers found that past experiences affect perceptions of the open-door policy and can make employees afraid to speak up. One study participant named Gerry, for instance, said he had used the open-door policy of his manager’s manager to talk about ways to improve communication with his immediate supervisor.
Tension arose after his supervisor’s manager told Gerry’s boss, who soon left the company. A few months later, Gerry, too, was ousted.
If a sense of exposure exists, employees often shut down. Perception and mindset aren’t the only differences involved; cultural differences are often in play. For example, someone with an Asian background might consider it disrespectful to bring what seem like insignificant ideas to a senior leader who is busy attending to “bigger” problems, and thus not take advantage of an open-door policy.
Seniority is so strongly emphasized in the majority of Asian workplaces that employees worry about even well-intended suggestions seeming critical of superiors. In fact, a recent National University of Singapore Business School study of more than 300 full-time Chinese employees concluded that managers in Hong Kong should hold “open-door” meetings, talking collectively with groups of employees to promote idea sharing. This way, no one person will be perceived as overstepping hierarchical boundaries for knocking on the boss’s “open” door.
How do you want people to approach you and use the “open door”? What is in it for them? Is the information exchanged private or public? Be clear about what you want that access to achieve. Not everyone will be comfortable coming to you and voicing concerns or ideas. Specific open-door hours can be more inclusive than a broad open-door policy that requires employees to initiate approaching you.
Amazing moments materialise when differences are cultivated. For a business to operate at peak performance, every employee must make an effort to actively listen to all voices and viewpoints, even if they are the polar opposites of their own. As an American colleague said to me with a wink, “Get curious: There is more than one way to skin a cat. We need to consider all perspectives to reach our goal.”
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