‘Add diversity and stir’ is not working for business

Anna Triponel

October 19, 2020

In 1996, professors Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas wrote a Harvard Business Review article arguing that diversity is good for business when diverse teams can share and learn from one another’s differences. But almost 25 years on, the authors say, companies are failing to internalise the core message of that approach in favor of more superficial diversity strategies. To truly benefit from diversity, business leaders need to do more and dive deeper: they need to move towards a learning-and-effectiveness approach

Some context

  • The social challenges of the current moment—Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, income inequality, police brutality, anti-immigrant sentiment—are forcing companies to reckon with race, gender and other markers of diversity more directly than ever. What’s more, their employees, customers and investors are expecting them to do so.
  • In 1996, article authors Robin J. Ely (Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School) and David A. Thomas (President of Morehouse College and H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School) wrote an article for Harvard Business Review (HBR) called Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity.
  • The article made the case that hiring and retaining diverse employees is good for business—diverse teams that are able to learn from one another’s differences are more effective, creative and productive.  The authors call this the learning-and-effectiveness paradigm: “cultivating a learning orientation toward diversity—one in which people draw on their experiences as members of particular identity groups to reconceive tasks, products, business processes, and organizational norms—enables companies to increase their effectiveness.”
  • Twenty-four years later, however, Ely and Thomas are finding in a new HBR article, Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case, that this fundamental point has not been effectively internalised by company leadership: “Instead, business leaders and diversity advocates alike are advancing a simplistic and empirically unsubstantiated version of the business case. They misconstrue or ignore what abundant research has now made clear: Increasing the numbers of traditionally underrepresented people in your workforce does not automatically produce benefits. Taking an “add diversity and stir” approach, while business continues as usual, will not spur leaps in your firm’s effectiveness or financial performance.”
  • The authors note that “[c]ompanies have adopted a slew of initiatives as a result: affinity groups, mentoring programs, work-family accommodation policies, and unconscious-bias training, to name a few. But the sad truth is that these efforts largely fail to produce meaningful, sustained change—and sometimes even backfire.”

Key takeaways

The article points to four actions for business leaders and managers to move from a superficial approach to diversity towards a learning-and-effectiveness approach:

  1. “Build trust” by “creating a workplace where people feel safe expressing themselves freely.”
  2. “Actively work against discrimination and subordination” by: educating yourself on racism and discrimination; “investigating how [your] organization’s culture has reproduced systems of oppression, undercutting some groups’ opportunities to thrive and succeed, while giving others a boost”; and personally working “to spur collective learning and systemic change.”
  3. “Embrace a wide range of styles and voices” and avoid assigning positive or negative value to different culturally-rooted ways of speaking, dressing or behaving.
  4. “Make cultural differences a resource for learning” by encouraging open discussions between employees.

Read the full article here: Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case, Harvard Business Review (November/December 2020)

“Being genuinely valued and respected involves more than just feeling included. It involves having the power to help set the agenda, influence what—and how—work is done, have one’s needs and interests taken into account, and have one’s contributions recognized and rewarded with further opportunities to contribute and advance. Undertaking this shift in power is what the learning-and-effectiveness companies we wrote about in 1996 were doing, and it’s what enabled them to tap diversity’s true benefits.”                        

Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas, Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case, Harvard Business Review (November/December 2020)

“Finally, while there is a business case for diversity—one that rests on sound evidence, an expansive definition of what makes a business successful, and the presence of facilitating conditions—we are disturbed by the implication that there must be economic grounds to justify investing in people from underrepresented groups. Why should anyone need an economic rationale for affirming the agency and dignity of any group of human beings? We should make the necessary investment because doing so honors our own and others’ humanity and gives our lives meaning. If company profits come at the price of our humanity, they are costing us too much. And if diversity initiatives fail to reckon with that trade-off, they will amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.”                      

Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas, Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case, Harvard Business Review (November/December 2020)

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