Greater diversity does not easily translate to greater performance. It takes work to make that happen. Yet many leaders are content in the illusion that symbolic activities and underfunded training classes will turn their increasingly diverse organizations into world-class performers. Understanding why diversity is so often mismanaged requires debunking five strongly held myths about diversity:
Myth 1: Having diversity will increase performance and profits
Why it’s a myth: Having greater diversity in your team and in your organization only helps if you understand what to do with it. Bringing together people of different ethnicities, genders, or sexual orientations and saying “go to work” is a blueprint for failure and several studies bear this out. The key is being strategic about what kind of diversity you need to get the job done and going after it.
Myth 2: If you increase the number of women and people of color, you have increased your diversity
Why it’s a myth: Of course gender and ethnicity play a role in the way people see things. But the value of diversity doesn’t come from the appearance of a person. Rather, it comes in taking advantage of diverse perspectives to create business results. You can have a group that very much looks like the rainbow, but thinks pretty much the same. In that case, you haven’t increased your diversity at all.
Myth 3: Diversity efforts always benefit women and people of color
Why it’s a myth: White males are the generally the dominant group in the U.S. workplace and often believe they have the most to lose—jobs, promotions, status—when it comes to diversity. But women, people of color, and other people who are different also resist when diversity rhetoric and norms of behavior single them out and put them under a microscope. If diversity is only about counting heads, neither the organization nor “diverse” employees benefit in the long run.
Myth 4: A diverse workplace is ideally a harmonious and integrated workplace
Why it’s a myth: When diversity is working at its best, people are constantly bumping up against new ideas and perspectives that challenge long-held beliefs about how they see the world. I don’t know about you, but that activity usually unsettles me. A workplace in which differences are being leveraged is dynamic, energized, emotional and rarely boring. If you think that the ultimate vision for true diversity is constant harmony, think again.
Myth #5: Corporate leaders who want to increase race and gender diversity will make it happen
Why it’s a myth: Leaders constantly juggle the need to meet business goals with the need to meet diversity goals. That causes them frequently to make choices between a focus on either increasing race and gender diversity, or focusing on corporate performance. Because diversity is not well-linked to perfromance, they have to choose which will take precedent and diversity efforts almost always fall by the wayside. And an added cost: these leaders—who really want to do the right thing—end up worried that they will be seen as biased because they aren’t making progress with diversity. The only solution to this is to make diversity efforts and corporate performance one in the same. Leveraging difference, not managing diversity, can do just that.