Is there still anyone out there who doesn’t think that workplace diversity is a good thing?
Diversity gives you access to a greater range of talent, not just the talent that belongs to a particular world-view or ethnicity or some other restricting definition. It helps provide insight into the needs and motivations of all of your client or customer base, rather than just a small part of it. And, potentially, as McKinsey & Co and a host of other highly credible researchers have shown, it makes your organization more effective, more successful, more profitable.
However, actually achieving it in practice has turned out to be far more difficult than anticipated.
Our research at RSM suggests that, despite a genuine will on the part of most major organizations to implement productive diversity strategies, few, if any, have to date come up with something that really works.
So what is going wrong and how can it be put right?
Firstly, it seems that too many organizations make the fundamental error of failing to align their diversity practices with their organizational goals. And in such situations, no matter how much goodwill there is towards the concept of diversity, the harsh realities of running the business on a day-to-day basis, of keeping customers satisfied, of selling and delivering the product or service will keep undermining it. And secondly, there is often a mismatch between how organizations design diversity policies and how they implement them. Or to put it another way, what looks good on paper too often falls apart in practice.
However, while our investigations produced these rather dispiriting findings, they also helped us to identify four clear steps towards making workplace diversity a reality:
Clearly identify what you are trying to achieve
And, simply saying “workplace diversity” isn’t good enough because the devil is, of course, in the details. Too many diversity initiatives simply miss their intended target. For example, many organizations aim to realize the performance potential of diverse teams, by then implement diversity policies primarily designed to impact the representation of certain social groups in leadership positions. Only by understanding what the ultimate goal is can you have a chance of reaching it.
Don’t “copy and paste”
Every organization is unique, so every diversity initiative needs to be too. Simply borrowing one from somewhere else is unlikely to work. Which is perhaps why, for example, efforts to duplicate Norway’s approach to boardroom diversity in other places have largely proven unsuccessful, mainly because those other places don’t have the Norwegian history nor the Norwegian social infrastructure and gender norms behind them. Every program needs to take into account the specific culture and context of its host organization if it is going to do the required job.
Good design is important but good implementation is vital
There is a long-standing maxim in the military that no plan survives contact with the enemy. And in the corporate few diversity initiatives survive contact with operational management. Simply handing over even the best-designed program to individuals who may not have the tools, the capability or perhaps the motivation to implement it is likely to be a recipe for disaster.
Win “hearts and minds”
Successful initiatives answer the basic question, “Why should I do this?” If individuals within the organization cannot see the benefits of a program (or even worse if they identify disadvantages) then it will ultimately fail.
Of course, it’s a cliché to say that nothing worth achieving comes easily. But it’s also true. And the benefits of true workplace diversity are so obviously attractive that the challenges inherent in it simply have to be addressed. And we hope that the four steps outlined above will, at least in part, help to do that.