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Why Diversity and Inclusion Matters, and How to Drive It

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on Jun 23, 2016. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes |

Leveraging and harnessing different ideas, perspectives and experiences from a talented and capable workforce regardless of their organizational position and background drives effectiveness in organizations, argues Shaheen Akram, an organisational D&I consultant. Several more people have noted why diversity and inclusion matters to reach business objectives and be seen as a social responsible organization.

In his blog post "What We’re Doing To Keep Building A Diverse Editorial Operation" Buzzfeed’s editor in chief, Ben Smith, defined diversity as:

Enough people of a particular group that no one person has to represent the supposed viewpoint of their group — whether ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, socioeconomic background, or disability.

Speaking at QCon New York 2016 about diversity BuzzFeed’s director of engineering Swati Vauthrin said that for Buzzfeed hiring for diversity is an ethical imperative:

All individuals who are interested in tech and are willing to work hard and are willing to learn, build, and ship products should have access to the same opportunities.

It’s also, she argued, a sound business practice because it’s so hard to find good engineers.

In an interview about the business case for diversity in organizations, Silicon Valley Bank VP Regina Chien stated:

Senior leaders in an organization will set the tone for the rest of the organization through their actions and stories that they tell about why diversity is important to business objectives. It isn’t easy but framing the business objectives and showing that diversity and inclusion fit into the strategy for success is crucial. Diversity and inclusion cannot be a standalone initiative.

Sven Peters from Atlassian explained in his article on coding culture why diversity is important if you want to establish a culture that enables developing better products:

You should not only hire people who fit a certain stereotype. Believe me when I say you don’t want a bunch of programmers, and this may happen if you only hire your buddies. Your culture and productivity will grow with diversity. Culture dies if it isn’t invigorated by new influencers. Hire women, hire people of different ages, backgrounds, education and work experience, ethnicities, etc. and make sure that they are welcomed.

Akram will speak about driving diversity and inclusion at Spark the Change London 2016. InfoQ interviewed her about the role of leaders in driving diversity and inclusion, what organizations can do to create an inclusive environment, how diversity and inclusion strengthen each other, how diversity can improve collaboration in teams, and the benefits that enterprises can gain from having a strategy that supports diversity and inclusion.

InfoQ: What role do leaders have in driving diversity and inclusion?

Shaheen Akram: Leaders with the job title and those without have a great opportunity to set the tone, vision and practices for diversity and inclusion. Aligned to business objectives, their aim is to bring the words to life through everyday interactions. This in my experience carries the most weight – not what is said but what is done. It starts with leaders understanding the changing external and internal landscape and how this is affecting an organisation to think, innovate, and act differently. Leaders who share strong personalised stories, highlight their "light bulb" moments, are very powerful incentives.

Furthermore, sharing real examples such as "I want to create a place where my daughters can enter a workplace where they can thrive, I want my sons to be able to access all the opportunities available" shows that we are all human and the forever-changing landscape requires us all to adapt and change to not only survive in business but flourish. To ensure that organisations are changing, it is important to measure progress – we have all heard the phrase "what gets measured gets done". Progress should be reviewed periodically, transparently and shared with the wider organisation and good work and individuals should be recognised!

InfoQ: What can organizations do to create an inclusive environment where everyone has access to the same opportunities?

Akram: There are lots of practices and examples out there, where organisations are continuously trying to build an even more inclusive environment. There is no silver bullet but in my experience the relationship of the manager and employee is critical in not only building an inclusive environment but to actually feeling and being in one. Employees are savvy individuals; they know when then have been listened to, they know if a manager truly understands them, they know if they can speak openly. It is often said that people leave managers, not organisations. So equipping managers to be effective managers is critical and in my experience is the starting point. Encouraging managers to build better relationships, to trust and grow their people, to be conscious of potential bias or stereotypes they may carry will only enhance the experience of both parties. This should deliver positive results in terms of engagement, commitment and meeting objectives. In addition, ensuring policies, procedures and practices are reviewed with the "inclusion lens" so they do not inadvertently exclude employees is also a necessary step.

InfoQ: How do diversity and inclusion strengthen each other?

Akram: Often I have heard leaders say "we are a diverse organisation" but when you look across the room it is often made up of similar looking people, be this in terms of their demographic background or work experiences. This in my experience greatly affects the diversity of thought in the room, and therefore decision making. Let’s just pause and think about senior leadership teams... how diverse and inclusive are they? I would say that there is a lot of work to do and therefore a great opportunity.

An effective organisation should strive to take advantage of the different ideas, perspectives and experiences that a talented and capable workforce brings regardless of where they sit in an organisational structure. There is no point in bringing "diversity" into the organisation and then excluding its contribution – you might as well not have bothered. The aim is to enable people to be fully present, contributing, and valued.

InfoQ: Can you give examples how diversity can improve collaboration in teams?

Akram: Different people with different experiences automatically bring to teams different ideas and ways of working. This dynamic works effectively where ideas are generated and built upon. Sometimes, diverging ideas can cause friction, even chaos if not managed in the right way.

In my mind, there are a couple of steps that should be taken to ensure diverse teams collaborate effectively and successfully:

  • It is critical that teams are aligned and agree on the core purpose and ways of working.
  • Strong stewardship or management of the team may be required to ensure that all adhere.
  • Conditions should be set for ideas, debates and discussions, testing ideas, and collaboratively agreeing on a way forward.
  • Disruption should be encouraged. In my experience, it is essential to respectfully challenge thinking. Sparking thoughts is important and often leads to robust team outcomes.

InfoQ: Which benefits can enterprises gain from having a strategy that supports diversity and inclusion?

Akram: There is a lot of research out there that demonstrates the power of diversity and inclusion in financial and non-financial terms. Large and small organisations across the world are actively harnessing this power. The question for organisations is if they want to comply, compete, or lead in this space?

Among demographic changes, fierce competition, new and emerging markets, changing needs of customers, and aspirations of talented people, organisations must find ways of better connecting customers, people, and communities if they are to thrive. Innovation, collaboration, and working partnerships are essential ingredients. To get the best products and services to customers and employee requires organisations to work and harness differences, do things differently, and take calculated risks. Doing this, I believe, will drive the organisation to grow its bottom line, will deliver results over and above for both the customer and employee, and will be seen as a responsible business in the communities that it operates in. Win, win, and win!

Spark the Change London 2016 will be held July 6-7. This conference brings together leaders from across the business to explore how they can work together to create lasting and total change. It aims to inspire people and offer practical help in overcoming obstacles and developing skills to make a change. InfoQ will be filming sessions at Spark the Change London and cover the conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

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Competence matters by Ralf Haug

This whole diversity thing is wrong headed. The #1 priority is that a candidate does the job, no matter what gender, race, religion, etc.
We need to reward jobs and results based on accomplishments not on anything else.
I've seen good candidates be excluded because of some prejudice. This is wrong.
I've seen bad candidates be included because of "diversity". This is wrong.

Competence and accomplishments should count, nothing else.

Re: Competence matters by Shaheen Akram

Agreed, competent and capable people please. Diversity and inclusion is not about lowering standards, it's about opening up opportunities to all those that are capable regardless of the 'wrapper' or 'packaging' they come in

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