It’s long been known that in the natural world, systems need “requisite variety” in order to thrive. Homogeneity, while comfortable, leads to stasis and vulnerability. Variety, however, strengthens ecosystems, making them more agile, adaptable, and sustainable. The same is true in our organizations — diversity in the workplace strengthens the human ecosystem, too.
But, the very definition of workplace diversity is shifting. No longer is it defined solely in terms of demographics (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity), but rather as a more complex consideration of individual values, work ethic, communication styles, and motivations as well. A recent SAP study in the Economist on values-based diversity report speaks to this evolution, highlighting how the emergence of values-concerned millennials has made both the challenges and benefits of a diverse workforce more pronounced.
Does diversity deserve this much attention?
From a purely financial standpoint, the answer is yes. Companies showing high diversity in the workplace were found by McKinsey to consistently financially outperform those who don’t. When you consider the unparalleled group genius and creative solutions bred from teaming with individuals who bring distinct approaches and insights to the table, it makes sense that profitability results. Such diversity in the workforce also equips organizations to engage a more diverse set of clients and markets, increasing their competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Johnna Torson, Chief HR Officer at Pitney Bowes, attests that one of the core challenges facing organizations today is “creating an environment that lets very different people be who they truly are while maximizing their talent in order to support high performance” (Forbes). Creating such a workplace is no easy feat, especially in organizations with deeply engrained cultures and processes. Leaders will increasingly be tasked with challenging their status quo and strategically building corporate cultures that are simultaneously cohesive yet adaptive enough to attract and support the needs of a diverse workforce.
Too often, diversity “programs” fail because they inadvertently invite us to think in terms of stereotypes. So if programs aren’t the answer, what is?
To truly build diversity in the workplace, leaders must embrace authenticity and empathy as core values—and model these values in their behavior. Creating a space where authenticity and empathy is the norm and individuals can bring their true selves, passions, perspectives, and styles to the table enables their truly unique talents to shine and for deep learning from one another to occur. Not only does this make for more engaged, energized employees, but also it makes for a more successful business.