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3 Steps to a Diverse Team

Business leaders who have traditionally waited to see which prospective employees came through their door to interview are now considering what that door looks like from the other side. If I claim to be a forward thinking and competitive leader, but I have a sign on my door that says “only 20% of the qualified candidates are allowed to work here,” I have set myself up in a foolish situation.

Does the reputation of my company or my team let candidates know that they will be valued for their skills and contributions to the team? Do people understand that I value a variety of creative skill sets and backgrounds? Do closed minded and ignorant people understand that they will not be able to bring their cancerous personal issues to this team?

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Why does this matter? Half of the most talented people in the world are women. A large number of extremely talented people are confined to wheelchairs, have vision impairments, or in any number of ways have a distinctly unique perspective on life. The top five largest cities in the world are not in the US or Europe (surprised?). They are, in order, Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, Delhi, and Lagos. New York is sixth. The majority of the most talented people in the world are not what we traditionally call “white” people, the ones who are looking up Lagos right now.

If I have a welcome mat that infers, “Welcome white guys! (Asians are close enough / women are ok as long as they can type and bring me coffee.)” then I am greatly limiting my chances of attracting and retaining the best talent. In fact, a great many enlightened “white guys” will refuse to work for a place with such ignorant foundations.

This is nothing against “white guys” as a group. (Your faithful author, dear reader, is of working class Irish American heritage as far back as the 1600’s) In fact, I believe it is an accident of providence that “white guys” happened to be the ones with all of the resources. If the Pacific Ocean had been the smaller one, instead of the Atlantic, Los Angeles might well have been called New Tokyo and Seattle could have been New Moscow. Europe could have been the starving farmers, similar to southern Asia of forty years ago. In addition, it hasn’t always been this way and it won’t be this way in the future, with China moving swiftly to surpass the US in GDP before 2040.

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Even if this issue never seemed like a moral one, it is definitely the basis for some sound business strategy. Even a cursory internet search can find numerous reputable studies that link diversity of team members and leadership to performance gains of up to 33% over similar companies, most often with gender diversity being the strongest factor. Companies in the bottom quartile of gender and ethnic diversity are likely to underperform by as much as 29%.

It comes down to more viewpoints on topics, more solutions to problems, and more creative ideas generated. If part of this strikes a chord with you, read on for the three ways to honestly increase team diversity.

Number One: Avoid Pandering

The easiest place to start is to realize that you are looking to hire the smart people. By definition, ‘smart’ means they are mostly smarter than you. If you were to get the opportunity to lead a team where every member outperformed you in their specific capacity, your work life would be a joy and you would absolutely blow away the competition. The goal is to hire the best talent, which means looking for people who are better than you at any skill that is of value to your company.

The reason mandatory quotas, like affirmative action, were a failure in the US, even if they did create political momentum, is because they were measuring the very thing we need to stop measuring. They counted the colors and genders of people, without regard to the talents those people brought to the table. It is akin to judging the contents of a library by counting all of the books instead of reading them. (I’m old … grant me at least one ‘library’ analogy)

Don’t pander to women and minorities in a fake attempt to show you are open to diversity. The goal is not to “appear” diverse by talking about the ‘types’ of people you hire. Putting up any sort of facade is tacky and obvious. The smartest people, those talented few you are looking for, will be insulted by this and will understand immediately that this company is run by simple minded charlatans. The goal is to “be” diverse and have a diversity of thought and action that brings value to your company and your community. A bit idealistic, I know, but c’est la vie.

If the company’s advertising shows a mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds, but a quick search online reveals that the engineering team is 92% white males and 8% asian males, this dishonesty will not go unnoticed. As Eleanor Roosevelt suggested, center discussions around ideas and you will interest the high fliers out there.

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Once your focus is off of gender, race, religion, and all that stuff … you can look for brilliant, creative ideas. Your organization will become known for this and you will naturally attract talent that is a diverse representation of all ‘types’ of people available in your area of the world.

If none of this makes sense, stop here and go read something else. You are not part of the solution. If you think you might have some bias, like we all do, and would like to minimize the detrimental effects, read on and think about something to challenge me on.

Number Two: Understand People

Diversity is a funny word. It means a variety of different types of people. The problem with using this word is that most people are the same. Women and men do not have vastly different values when it comes to job security, benefits, working conditions, or pay rates. There are some differences, to be sure, but there are many more similarities.

Human nature and behaviors are generally forged by environmental and cultural factors, not by any sort of skin color or gender. People are people. There are very talented people in every industry. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They have a variety of habits they learned from their grandmother. They cook favorite foods they learned from their uncle. They are creative, competent, and focused.

Understand that people are the same, mostly. It is talent that is diverse. Learn to look for talent instead of outward appearance. Some of the most successful people in history were college dropouts, outcasts in school, or written off by their third grade teacher as stupid. Don’t put too much weight into socioeconomic conditions, hair color, or college choices. Learn to look for talent.

If you haven’t already, take some time to appreciate the diversity in the world. Learn about women’s issues and LGBT issues. Learn about the caste system in India, racism in China, diamonds in South Africa, healthcare in Tanzania, Brexit(!!), the exile of the Dalai Lama, education in Sweden, life expectancy in Singapore, that beautiful (but empty??) capital city in North Korea, drug treatment in the Netherlands, the unique culture in Andorra, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, polio outbreaks in Afghanistan, or anything that interests you. The world is rich with beautiful diversity.

Learn about different religions and cultures. Travel as much as you can. You will probably never have a conversation about any of it during an interview, but just in case someone brings up “pronouns” at work, you will know what you are talking about. It also gives you a chance to respect other people’s beliefs and cultures even if they do not match your own. In addition, you won’t ‘accidentally,’ through ignorance, insult someone without realizing it and you can keep an eye for others on your team who might slip on that same dangerous slope.

The main ‘business’ value, beyond customer relations, for this ideological expansion is one of the core abilities of great communicators: the ability to entertain someone else’s idea without agreeing with it. This one ability makes it nearly impossible to develop a toxic environment around you unless you have the extraordinary bad luck to attract absolute saboteurs in your midst who are genuinely trying to bring you down … but I shall refrain from my alarmist digression.

Once an environment becomes toxic, it is toxic to everyone and it is unlikely to return to health without tremendous, painful changes. The healthy people leave almost immediately. The vulnerable or unsure ones stay a bit longer. At the end, all that is left is the damaged people who thrive on toxicity due to unresolved childhood issues or mental illness.

Good people want a good place to work where they are treated as valuable contributors. Under normal conditions, the most important functions a leader has are to

  • maintain a respectful environment (lead by example, apologize if needed, model appropriate treatment, stand up for dignity and respect)
  • allow people to be a valuable part of the team (celebrate team achievements instead of individuals, give credit, shoulder blame, seek talents, value contributions, empower people)
  • inspire (manage expectations, be clear, provide mission and values, give room to grow, share failures as opportunities).

Number Three: Motivate People

Once you have found ways to welcome intelligent people and ways to identify talented people, you have to create an environment that will motivate them. Regarding motivation, there are many books by many experts. It is a life’s pursuit to learn the skill of motivation and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. There are a few things that seem to work consistently.

Daniel Pink is a great writer on the subject. Some criticize his ideas for being simplistic, but that is where you can find the value. Simple doesn’t mean easy or below par; it means there are few steps. This means his ideas, based on research, are easy for a wide variety of people to implement. They are actionable. If a few good ideas can get you 80% of the way there, it is worth the trip.

A cornerstone of intrinsic motivation is AMP, which stands for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These three do not hold for straight manual labor, but for any job that requires even rudimentary thought, these are the three best motivators for people. They are better than money and vacation time. They are better than promotions and parking spots.

If you have noticed the ‘carrot and stick’ model failing repeatedly, I suggest you look into motivation theory and find out why. Even the analogy has a clue … the carrot and the stick were used to coax mules to carry heavy loads across harsh terrain. Interestingly, this analogy is also one of the more hotly debated language standoffs of our time, dating back to at least 1851.

In both popular, competing versions the main idea seems to be manipulative coercion, so either one serves our purpose well here. They represent extrinsic motivations, those contrived maneuvers that have been shown to exist somewhere between mildly effective and a waste of time.

The idea of a different motivation, one emanating from our human soul and spirit, has been known for a very long time. In its modern incarnation, we know it as intrinsic motivation and it is the gold mine of productivity for tasks that require creativity and thought.

Here is a brief explanation of each component:

  • Autonomy: People will be most fulfilled, and will produce their best work, when they are allowed to decide what topics they prioritize, how they schedule their time, and how they do their jobs. At first glance, this idea may seem at odds with current corporate culture. That is very astute of you to notice. It is the opposite of ‘traditional’ 20th century business thinking, but it is right.
  • Mastery: People will be most fulfilled, and will be the best leaders, when they are allowed to seek mastery. There are plenty of ways to do this. The most basic is to give people more responsibility as they gain in skills. Having people teach each other their jobs is a good way. Having the boss teach everyone his or her job is a great way.
  • Purpose: People will be most fulfilled, and will be the most loyal and caring, when they are working towards a common goal. This is why cultures with religion survived where the cultures that did not have this common goal were lost to the depths of survivorship bias. This is the reason that good hospitals and well run schools have such drastically higher success outcomes when compared to peers, even after correcting for community, culture, income levels, and city size.

Autonomy and Mastery are easy to learn about and comparatively simple to implement, even if there are some growing pains. But purpose … this is the tricky one. It takes leadership and focus and constant vigilance. It is also intricately related to diversity. People from different cultures may well have different opinions about what is the most important purpose. Talk about it. Respect the ideas. Value contributions.

Find a way to respect what each person values most as a purpose. It won’t always work out. Even very smart people leave very good companies. It happens. Seek out a few mentors at companies that you respect. It is always good for anyone to have somebody knowledgeable and objective to bounce around ideas with. For the cost of a cup of coffee, you may well increase the diversity of your team or your entire organization. Quite a bargain.

Mike is a software developer, chemist, motivational speaker, parent, and musician who writes about creativity and human nature.

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