Instead the reverse is true and diversity can lead to an unlevel playing field, says Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, former senior advisor to Goldman Sachs and author of The Loudest Duck.
“We all bring ourselves – our unconscious selves – to the workplace; this includes our perceptions, archetypes and biases. In the process of that, diversity has the potential to unlevel the playing field, certain people are advanced, and there is the potential to over- or under-hear people,” Liswood says.
“One of the problems in diversity is people think it’s like Noah’s ark, you just get two of everything on the ark and it will all be fine. But the giraffe looks at the zebra and sees something so different. If you think like that you won’t get what you want from diversity.”
At the Thinking Ahead Institute cognitive diversity topical day, Liswood challenged the audience to think about a meeting when the way people are heard is equal. People either get under or over-heard, she says.
“We have got to Noah’s ark, we have diversity, but we haven’t taught people how to deal with it. We don’t have the tools to deal with heterogeneity.”
Liswood, who was previously managing director of global leadership and diversity at Goldman Sachs, gave some examples of how diversity can unlevel the playing field.
“You can have all the nationalities you want, but what does everyone actually think about each other? You go to Japan and what do they think about China or Korea, you go to England and what do they think about the French? What does an older generation really think about a younger generation – that they’re lazy, they don’t know anything, they need constant feedback. You get diversity but we don’t know how to deal with it.
“With regard to diversity in thinking it’s not whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert that is the issue, it’s not how you think about things, it’s how you react to people who are not like you.”
So, she says, diversity can unsettle the workplace.
“It’s about like and like. If I went to Oxford I’m more likely to look out for my new hire who also went to Oxford.”
In some ways it is up to managers to be aware of these differences, and of their own behaviours, and manage for that. While bonding is a really important part of creating a team culture, a manager is more likely to promote or give bonuses to those who they’ve bonded with. If bonding activities, for example drinking alcohol, can exclude certain people, then managers should bond in other ways so that when it comes to making decisions, it’s equal.
“That type of bonding is giving unlevel managerial access, and in a hierarchy, that has consequences,” she says.
“There is a bias to those you’ve bonded with. That doesn’t make you a bad manager, it makes you a human manager.”
Liswood also pointed out, though, that while the manager has 50 per cent responsibility to build on the relationship with employees, the individual also has a 50 per cent responsibility to further their own career, and can for example ask their manager out for a coffee.
“The point is, we all live in different worlds, and senior executives need to work out the worlds that people are living in within their organisations.”
Another example that Liswood gave was that of race. She says that research has shown people with a non-Anglo Saxon name need to send out 50 per cent more resumes to get a job.
“We all live in different worlds. A cab goes past me in NYC; an African American experiences that five times more than me. It’s a possibility for me but it’s a frequency for him. You can’t say we have the same experience,” she says.
So it’s not diversity on its own that will create a better workplace, but how people react to others that are not their archetype.
Managers need to use certain tools, like being a traffic cop and making people take turns in meetings, and if they don’t then diversity will disadvantage certain people.
“In a diverse organisation you have got to tell people they have a responsibility to get out of their comfort zone and speak up,” she says.
“If you let the conversation flow naturally the loudest person – ie the American – will speak the most. You need to know your people and manage them, be a traffic cop.”
Liswood advises the best tool a manager can have in their toolbox is to provide every employee with critical feedback.
“The performance difference between those that have received critical feedback and those that haven’t is massive. Managers find it easier to give critical feedback to those that are like them. It is hard to give it to those unlike them as it is unknown how they will take it,” she says. “A tool I highly recommend is three up and three down every three months. Tell employees three things they’re doing well, and three things they need to work on, and do it for everyone every three months. All critical feedback beyond the three months doesn’t change behaviour.”
Liswood says there needs to be more tools in the toolbox to deal with the cognitive diversity that organisations aim to get to.
There are some circumstances where it is better to have homogeneity in a team, but Liswood says there are three requirements necessary for that to be the case: The problems are simple; communication is easy (eg turn the screw); the environment doesn’t change (eg if all you need to do is dig 50 holes, then just get 50 hole diggers).