Theunis van der Linde
Diversity as a value driver
Combining all the threads of a diverse workplace to combine into a single beautiful final product can be a huge challenge!
It stands to be reasoned that the focus on Diversity has matured and morphed from compliance to performance. While in the past the main driver towards a diverse workplace has been compliance (i.e., meeting certain targets), the tables are turning and firms can no longer ignore the benefits linked to the relationship between diversity and performance.
Therefore, the important (and more relevant) question and concept currently are how to achieve optimal performance, and how to leverage the diversity that is present within companies to enhance productivity.
Even though human beings are disparate in terms of age, gender, race, and appearance, it is their unique set of abilities and talent, achieved qualifications, background, life experiences, and accomplishments that can be applied in varying degrees of vigour, and which can add to the contribution of the company.
This variety in humanity is at the very core of the offering; in terms of values, beliefs, cultures, and cognitive/behavioural styles. Unless regular interaction over time is present, this is often difficult to perceive and understand. For this reason in contemporary business, the complexity of differences that leaders are expected to master is no easy accomplishment.
This highlights the fact that a very small portion of leaders and managers have had full involvement in the setup of the structure of the diverse working environment in which they may find themselves today.
In some instances, new leaders and managers find themselves with an existing workforce or team with which they have to work to produce at peak levels and achieve set targets. The paradigm with which such leaders and managers themselves have experienced cultural diversity (or lack thereof) in the past will sometimes need to be re-examined when placed in such a situation.
Failure to critically analyze one's mindset might allow irrelevant and predefined stereotypes and prejudices to distort reality and result in sub-optimal management and performance results. This occurrence threatens the organizational culture that the company has strived to obtain. However, an entrenched organizational culture will be kept current because of ownership and understanding by leadership and employees alike, and a culture that exists where they walk the talk through their conduct.
The topic of how to build such a culture through persistence and habits is not the topic of this post, however. But the potential value that can be achieved by leveraging diversity in your organization is.
While the implications and effective leveraging of diversity are very demanding for leaders and managers, it is potentially very valuable to the output of companies. As with all management challenges, diversity is a double-edged sword when it comes to the effect it has on the performance of a company.
Therefore, the challenge exists of managing diversity in order to lead to conditions that minimize the effect of being a performance barrier and increase the potential to enhance performance.
While there may be many more value levers, five major areas jump out to me where diversity can enhance the performance of a firm.
They are (1) improved problem solving, (2) increased creativity and innovation, (3) increased organizational flexibility, (4) improved quality of talent, and (5) improved marketing strategies.
Each area will be discussed briefly below.
Improved problem solving
When workgroups are faced with challenges they rely on the experience, knowledge and skills of the individual members of the team to overcome those challenges. The presence of diversity in such a team means that a broader and more comprehensive base is available to tap from in experience and knowledge in order to solve a problem. In addition, diversity enhances critical analysis in decision-making groups.
The opinion of all members of the group is considered, irrespective of what the outcome or the decision is ultimately. This leveraging of diverse experience and knowledge does not always occur naturally and require the proactive management and constant state of awareness of the individuals in these diverse groups.
Constant awareness that diverse factors relating to personality, previous work and life experiences, etc. (things that aren’t possible to observe externally) can add immense value to the best possible solution, sometimes regardless of the individual’s age, gender, nationality or ethnic origin.
First of all, it needs awareness, and then continuous and conscious effort to bring the value to the forefront.
Maximize creativity and innovation
Similarly, teams can tap into the vast database that exists by what each member brings to the team in terms of their background and experience.
In recent times the influence of technology on younger members of the workforce can add to the creative solutions required to solve organizational problems that exist. When companies market or sell their products they mostly have a very broad customer or market segment. When a team possesses similar qualities in its workers to the market to which they sell or serve, the team can be used as a direct marketing and testing tool.
It also means that diverse groups in teams can be used to uncover new markets and segments previously overlooked, and where traditional marketing tools and analysis failed.
Enhanced organizational flexibility
Any company that in essence strives to adapt and embrace diversity with the aim of improved output results in increased flexibility. The diverse nature of the employees within teams forces them to rethink the way they do things.
Research has shown that companies might benefit from efforts to increase the perceptions and alter beliefs about diversity amongst their workforce instead of only focusing on achieving statistical targets set for diversity.
These perceptions of diversity are critical in influencing employee motivation and behaviour, which in turn leads to higher levels of organizational performance.
Turn talking the talk into walking the walk.
Overall skilled human talent
The train of thought in the modern business world is that organizations that are the best at attracting, retaining and using the skills of diverse workers will enjoy a competitive advantage.
This is simply due to the diverse potential employee base that is present in the marketplace. As with any production process, one of the factors of production or input into most organizations can be seen as human capital. Probably the most valuable one at that.
If the quality of the input is not very high then it makes sense that this directly affects the quality of the output or product. This is not simply a process that starts and ends with human resources and recruitment, but rather a sustainable strategy or culture that is created in the organization.
There are arguments to be made that one of the key factors to successful leveraging of diversity is to create ownership at all levels in the organization. If all employees are involved and management accountability can be established, then the golden thread can be traced to constant appraisals and linking to compensation or performance bonuses.
Regrettably, many organizations employ traditional human resource management systems that result in a decrease in the advancement of diversity because the existing technique of engaging, motivating, and preserving workers in the organization are more conducive to homogeneity.
The engagement process of new employees for vital roles frequently involves relying on the assistance of current employees and their base of reference, which most of the time include ex-colleagues and previous organizations.
This phenomenon does not develop the progress towards effective engagement with diversity in mind, but simply done to fill vacancies and the result will most probably be a homogenous group.
In many industries which are heavily regulated by legislation, for example, the mining or oil and gas industry, often very little room is available to maneuver and freely recruit at will and to try to improve on the diversity of the workforce. Often some positions are linked to minimum qualifications or requirements, which can limit the selection or intake pool.
This adds to the fact that care must be taken by organizations to sufficiently distinguish whether their approach is one of valuing diversity or managing diversity. They are distinctly different concepts. Valuing refers to the relative worth, importance, or significance of something, whereas managing refers to taking charge or coordinating and supervising situations.
Given these definitions, one can regard valuing diversity as a more passive approach where the substance is given to individuals’ differences. This does not inevitably lead to visible actions or reactions on the part of the individuals valuing the diversity or differences.
On the flip side of the coin, one should consider managing diversity as an active approach that involves supervising or coordinating and directing the diversity or differences individuals bring to the organization.
In doing so the result will be that the organization’s strategic goals are being fully and effectively met. In other words, it refers to enhancing the organizational inputs of individuals with diverse backgrounds.
That is why, especially when bound by stiff targets, legislation or other limiting factors, it is important to have a proactive approach and manage diversity instead of valuing it.
Better marketing strategies
A relevant factor all organizations face today is the need to embrace diversity. Not only are the internal components of organizations experiencing this change, but also the rising globalization of the business world today results in more and more diverse markets evolving.
There are various ways that diverse teams can enhance performance and services in the increasingly diverse markets globally. One benefit for an organization is that the corporate image created may be extremely positive and the company can be regarded as one that values and manages diversity well. This links to the point above, in that it may also then attract a wider and more talented candidates as potential employees.
Another positive outcome is that marketing efforts, when assisted by employees within that organization who understand the target market of the organization, maybe more effective. The individuals within the firm are often of similar background to those individuals to whom the products and services are aimed for.
A diverse rich employee base can help to enhance customer relations when working with clients from a diversity of cultural backgrounds. Airports are classic examples of such organizations taking advantage thereof where the language barrier has been overcome by making use of a diverse team of employees who fit perfectly with the needs of the customers.
Resultantly a large portion of the global population can travel relatively comfortably knowing that in some popular areas a service will be provided in their language.
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