We all accept that diversity is a good thing – to a point.  We assemble working teams of people from different disciplines (finance, marketing, manufacturing, etc.) and maybe even call in outside experts, knowing that diverse information is critical to good decision-making.  The real business benefits of social diversity, or different gender, racial and style differences, are less obvious.  After all, diverse groups are inefficient, stressful and have a tougher time coming to consensus.

But recent research shows that diversity is critical – especially for businesses that value innovation and new ideas.  In fact groups with racial, gender and background mixes actually outperform more homogenous teams.  The reasons are not quite so obvious.  First you are more likely to come prepared when you anticipate a group that is likely to disagree.  And when a person “different” than yourself presents a dissenting view, you are more likely to really listen and feel the need to absorb that view.

“This logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.”

In working with dozens of businesses and groups to facilitate discussions around strategic planning etc,  I have learned that getting everyone’s voice is critical to getting the absolute best end product.

Here are some techniques I use:

  • Accept the messiness of diversity.  Assimilating different opinions, styles, and backgrounds takes more time and causes more stress.  Bake in extra time in the agenda for those items where there will be disagreement.  Start the meeting by setting the context and shared goals upfront to the group: the process will feel stressful and inefficient, but that the end result will be a superior one.
  • Think about different learning/processing styles and bake that into the process design.
    • Visual learners need to see pictures, draw diagrams etc.  Have markers and big paper for drawings ready and accessible to all.  (I vividly remember one colleague at GE who spent an entire meeting quietly drawing.  At the end of the hour he quietly revealed a “picture” of the end problem and solution – amazing and a huge contribution to the team!)
    • Oral learners need to engage in a lively open debate to express and process information.  Set some helpful limits via ground rules, time cut-offs and facilitation to redirect the discussion when it gets off track.
  • Think about personality styles.  You may or may not know all the personalities that will be in the room but incorporating certain techniques ensures all voices (loud and quiet) are heard:
    • Quiet introverts.  Provide data and background reading in advance or printed out so introverts can feel comfortable preparing and absorbing.  Have solo activities where each person needs to write his/her thoughts quietly on paper or post-ettes and then post on the wall.  Assign quieter people to present certain sections of the agenda to ensure they are heard.
    • Assertive, strong types.  Create an environment to capture the energy without the intimidation.  Present ground rules such as “Only one voice at a time” and “Criticize the idea, not the person.”  If you have a really boisterous group, incorporate a fun “rule” – in one group of entrepreneurs we throw chocolate if a speaker is taking too long or dominating the discussion.

“The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.”


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