Diversity and inclusion are fundamental human values. To have functioning and fulfilling societies, all different kinds of people need to be able to collaborate, accept one another, and treat each other as equals. As it so happens, the evidence is overwhelming that companies that prize diversity and inclusion receive outsized financial benefits on top of the obvious interpersonal benefits — but building diverse and inclusive teams can still be a challenge for even the savviest HR departments.
As technological innovation makes business increasingly global, conversations about diversity are accelerating and becoming more nuanced — and companies need to embrace inclusive leadership to keep up. Hiring for diversity and inclusion is clearly important, but how can companies make sure they’re building teams that can actually succeed together? By the same token, diverse hiring along lines of gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are all great practices, but what about other axes of difference that might be underrepresented? Similarly, what should a company do if their culture isn’t inclusive enough to retain a diverse workforce in the long term?
Fortunately, we have four practical tips for businesses to build diverse and inclusive teams for long-term success, innovation, and employee satisfaction alike.
Hire for inherent and acquired diversity
When business professionals talk about diversity, it’s usually shorthand for inherent diversity, meaning factors like gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and age. While there are plenty of well-meaning companies that could still broaden their scope on that front, acquired diversity is harder to quantify — and is even more overlooked as a result.
According to a report from the Center for Talent Innovation, acquired diversity includes a person’s individual life experiences beyond their group status, such as their cultural fluency, global mindset, and language skills. As the study showed, companies that hired for both inherent and acquired diversity along at least three different axes outperformed their competitors in virtually every metric imaginable. As an added bonus, teams with more acquired diversity were more likely to create cultures that led to greater innovation and increased market share.
Hiring for inherent diversity is straightforward enough, but companies should also encourage their HR departments to look beyond the resumé for acquired diversity. Ask about applicants’ backgrounds and life experiences in interviews, and keep a keen eye for candidates who seem particularly cosmopolitan. By doing so, you can give your teams an invisible diversity boost and create open-minded cultures that are more likely to be cohesive.
Embrace international cultures through language learning
The framework of intersectionality, pioneered by lawyer and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, explains that a person’s many social and political identities (including but not limited to physical appearance, class, race, and gender) intersect in ways that can compound the discrimination they face in the world. In 2020, how intersectionality affects business is better understood than it has ever been, but the importance of internationality in business is still underappreciated.
The effects of digitalization and globalization have made the business world increasingly international, and the advantages of having a global workforce are becoming more and more obvious. Still, even if there are clear benefits to international teams, there are additional communication and cross-cultural challenges as well.
To create international teams that are diverse and inclusive, forward-thinking businesses have embraced company-wide language learning as a best practice. Through services like Babbel for Business, many international business leaders have streamlined communication in their organizations to gain a competitive edge in the global marketplace. After all, multilingual teams have a clear advantage when it comes to cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity.
Perhaps the quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela explains this strategy best: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Encourage diversity at all levels through inclusive leadership
According to a 2015 McKinsey report, public companies with the most diverse management teams were 35% more likely to financially outperform their industry peers — and less diverse companies were more likely to underperform. Even so, hiring for diversity in the C-suite is no guarantee that inclusive values will automatically trickle down. To ensure that they do, be clear with your team leaders that inclusive leadership is a priority — even if there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to achieve it.
Inclusive leadership should include a visible commitment to diversity, a culture of humility, awareness of implicit bias, curiosity about others, cultural intelligence, and an emphasis on collaboration. To foster these traits, encourage leaders to learn their team members’ cultures without overlooking their individual strengths. Finally, make sure team leaders can admit their own weaknesses and ask their teams for constructive feedback. By having your leaders show inclusivity by example, teams can bond more closely and lift each other up — resulting in cohesive cultures where everyone feels safe voicing opinions, making mistakes, and taking creative risks.
Transform conflict into innovation through good communication
While diverse and inclusive teams come with plenty of benefits, diversity can also lead to more conflict — or at least, it can add to perceived conflict. Even so, having a little bit of healthy disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing. Healthy conflict can turn into what Linda Hill of Harvard Business School calls “creative abrasion” — a dynamic that can spark innovation under the right leadership. Still, as with diversity and inclusion, creating the right culture to reap those rewards can be a balancing act.
According to a two-year study conducted by Google into innovation, the specific combination of people and personalities in a team was much less important than how psychologically safe team members felt with one another. Psychological safety is particularly important in diverse teams as well — though the answer for how to create that safety is surprisingly simple. As Google’s study showed, the most successful and innovative teams used two key processes in their communication: equality in conversational turn-taking and ostentatious listening. In other words, all team members spoke roughly the same amount, and those who weren’t talking showed active listening during the downtime.
By having team leaders adopt and manage these processes, your diverse and inclusive teams may just become engines of innovation — which is good for employee satisfaction and the company’s bottom line in equal measure.