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Leaders who demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion that goes beyond rhetoric, have a powerful strategic advantage in the marketplace. A culture that is able to integrate different lifestyles, backgrounds, and experiences results in an organization that’s able to see problems and opportunities from different angles, and create innovative solutions and strategies.
A diverse staff also guards against an organization becoming too insular and out of touch with their customers and communities. In fact, some would argue that a crucial component of success is that the organization’s employees reflect the people they serve. This makes sense, as there is a direct link to internal culture and customer satisfaction. When staff come to work every day in an inclusive environment where they feel valued for their unique contributions, it stands to reason that they will treat customers better.
Diversity is important. But, what does it mean to create a culture that embraces difference and harnesses its power?
It’s About Being Inclusive – Not Separating People into Categories
Organizations that understand the value of diversity don’t “use” it as a growth strategy to increase legitimacy with customers or members. Rather, diversity is about increasing the actual cultural competence of their staff. In this light, diversity isn’t a “program” for attracting the right amount of people in the right amount of categories. This approach can actually have the opposite effect – separating people into labeled groups rather than bringing people together.
After all, you can’t create an inclusive workplace environment simply by including people who look different. The goal is to nurture a culture whereby everyone feels like they are accepted for the uniqueness of who they are rather than trapped in a predefined box of who they should be. Diversity isn’t about categories. It’s about allowing room for people to bring their identities with them to work.
To build diversity into the culture, it must be perceived as a lens for how to identify, develop, and advance talent. For example, rather than working with a “minority recruiter” to fill minority checkboxes, educate every recruiter about how to relate to the diversity within the population from which they are recruiting.
It’s also important that leaders cultivate an attitude of diversity throughout the entire organization. Diversity is a meaningless word if it’s only part of the leadership vernacular and not a part of the day-to-day actions of the employees who influence the actual experience of working there.
Diversity is Largely About Thought and Innovation
Diversity is much bigger than ethnicity, gender, or culture. It’s also about how we think, behave, problem solve, and innovate. If everyone in the room thinks the same, and has similar skills and experience, it’s going to be pretty difficult to come up with new ideas. On the contrary, when we fill our organizations with people who have diverse experiences, learning styles, talents, strengths, backgrounds, and opinions, it’s possible to achieve a wide enough spectrum of ideas from which real innovation is possible.
Creating a culture in which diversity of thought exists necessitates a high degree of emotional and social intelligence. As leaders, emotional intelligence is required if we are to rise above our need to justify or validate ourselves, which is what happens when we seek people who are just like us in their thinking. We also need a certain amount of social competency to be able to engage people with different ideas and perspectives.
While anti-harassment, discrimination, and diversity training are important initiatives at times, it’s important to understand that diversity is not only about focusing on particular groups or issues. Diversity is a focus on inclusion – not inclusion for some, but for all. It’s a part of how we think, work, and act all the time.
As leaders, creating and maintaining an inclusive environment that speaks to every employee rests on our shoulders. Effective leadership empowers everyone to embrace differences and work together toward a common goal.