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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Here's How You Can Make Diversity More Than a Buzzword in Your Office

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Let’s do a little free association: Which word pairing sounds most familiar to you?

  1. Diversity and Compliance

  2. Diversity and Political Correctness

  3. Diversity and Leadership

If you picked number one or two, welcome to the club. The stereotype about diversity is that it’s an exercise in political correctness or a buzzword for a corporate check-the-box initiative. More often not, the word’s usually followed by people rolling their eyes, since it never seems to translate to more than a talking point.

However, smart leaders know that it’s about so much more than that. They go out of their way to create diverse teams because they know that it improves the department’s product, increases innovation, and leads to better results. Just one small example of many: Research shows that, “Leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, and employees in a ‘speak up’ culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.”

As the workforce continues to more closely reflect our actual population demographics, diversity and it’s sibling, inclusion, are becoming even more important to learn about and understand. “Diversity” is shorthand for the mix of employees when it comes to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and so on, while “inclusion” is making the mix work.

This isn’t simple. You won’t find a “Diversity for Dummies” handbook that explains how to treat everyone respectfully, because what qualifies as respect varies from individual to individual, from culture to culture, and from group to group. However, leaders who understand the importance of it all have one habit in common: They get comfortable talking about the topic, rather than pretending they don’t notice differences.

“If you don’t see the color of my skin,” my Native American colleague recently said to me, “then you aren’t seeing all of me. My skin color connects me with my cultural heritage. It’s important to me.” An inclusive workplace is one where people feel comfortable being themselves; where their skin color, religious affiliations, age, gender, and sexuality are all respected.

Diversity educator and expert Dr. Michael Welp, in his book Four Days to Change: 12 Radical Habits to Overcome Bias and Thrive in a Diverse World, notes that “…leaders walk on egg shells when it comes to diversity. 20 years of experience has shown us that leaders steer clear of these tough (diversity) conversations partly because they have never been taught how to have those conversations.”

And yes, these conversations can be both deeply personal and appropriate in the workplace. Some personality conflicts have their origins in unacknowledged differences, for example, and leaders who have the know-how to talk about these issues can help their team members learn to be more empathetic and tolerant of one another.

Because, long story short, creating a diverse team isn’t about gathering a bunch of different people and then expecting them all to do everything exactly the same. But rather to value the fact that everyone’s differences make the team stronger as a whole. Good leaders can help the workplace become a more comfortable place for everyone by both listening with empathy and being open to push the discussion further. As Muse writer Felicity Barber says in an article on making your workplace more diverse, simply sharing stories with each other—good and bad—can help get that crucial dialogue started.

For example, you can’t assume that everyone from a Spanish-speaking country likes to be referred to as “Hispanic.” People from Mexico may prefer “Chicano” or “Chicana” while people from neighboring Guatemala may prefer “Latino” or “Latina.” You won’t know unless you ask (and ask respectfully).

While this may seem like 101 for many people, for white men, like myself, that’s not always the case. We (and now I am speaking for white guys like myself) rarely refer to being a part of a group at all, much less refer to ourselves as “white.” Because we are the majority, we tend to see themselves as individuals first, not members of a group—so we assume the same must be true of other groups. Welcome to the complexity of diversity!

One of the most challenging and most rewarding steps any leader can make is learning to notice their own, largely unconscious biases and behaviors—from hiring to managing to decision-making. Unconscious bias is difficult to notice because it’s literally unconscious. Know this: Everyone has some level of unconscious bias about something; the skill you want to improve upon is noticing your own and then working to overcome it.

Diversity’s so much more than a buzzword for offices to toss around, it’s a mindset and an awareness that can differentiate a decent manager from a real, successful leader. And the good news is, if you think you’re falling short in this department, you don’t have to become an expert on everyone’s lives and background overnight. You just have to be willing to notice and talk about your own cultural and personal perspectives—and you have to be curious and courageous enough to ask others about theirs as well.