14. February 2019

Are diversity and inclusion still a thing? Sadly yes.

The Executive School visited the "Inclusive Leadership Event - Is the workplace a level playing field?" to get the latest insights into the research and discussion into this most important theme.

“Welcome! I’m happy to be here, but I find it a shame that we are in 2019 and still discuss diversity and inclusion.” With these words moderator Honey Thaljieh started the “Inclusive Leadership Event – Is the workplace a level playing field?”. The event took place at the FIFA Museum in Zürich. The Britisch Swiss Chamber of Commerce, the Dutch Business Round Table and the University of St. Gallen sponsored it.

Diversity is a pretty constant trend in business discussions. Compare it with hyped topics like blockchain for example. Considered a good thing and a positive social development, diversity yet still has to be argued for in business. And here we will argue backwards, starting with the final sentence of each of the four panelists, and working out why they found these important.

You need to be a bridge builder… or to find one

The first speaker was Prof. Dr. Winfried Ruigrok of the University of St. Gallen. He put in pretty dry terms that “diversity is all about the what happens when I put THESE people here together”. Business always asks if this matters for performance. Research shows that diversity is especially helpful for companies operating in multinational markets. Companies with too strong of a local focus do not profit as much from having diverse teams. But having a wild mix of people is not the best way to handle it: you can have too much of a good thing. The more diverse the teams, the more coordination and management skills necessary to make them work with efficiency. Here managers need to find so-called Bridge-builders or be such themselves. People capable of recognizing or creating a common ground among diverse team members. A fascinating result of research was that over time the positive and also the negative aspects of diversity tend to diminish. Prof. Winfried pointed out that companies have a lot of data that can show them where diversity is necessary for enhanced performance. But most do not take advantage of this information.

Dare to be yourself

Leon Pieters of Deloitte came next and took a more personal approach to the theme. One thing is managing a diverse team, another is being the one “diverse person” within the team. Recognizing oneself as the different one leads to a lot of wasted energy spent in trying to fit in. Pieters believes it is in the interest of companies to coach people to be their authentic selves, and channel that energy. He also finds it very useful to use broad ranged qualities to discuss diversity. For example, to discuss about “extroverts vs introverts”, applicable to women, men, black or Asian people. This helps keep the focus of the discussion on managing the issues of diversity and inclusion themselves, and not the specific group issue. He believes in the need for measurable forms of guaranteeing diversity, and on the necessity of an aggressive approach to ensuring it.

Communicate… but do not scare

Estefanía Tapias, one of the co-founders of WeSpace, did not feel confronted by sexist or discriminatory behaviour for a long time during her career. According to her due to the fact of having worked for bosses who supported diversity and women. Once she started working on the start up scene though, that became a tangible problem. She noticed how she would be disregarded in conversations or not taken seriously, just for being a young woman. To her surprise these attitudes would come often from fellow young people in developed countries. She commented that some developing countries are ahead of developed ones in that regard. Colombia for example has so many women in leadership positions that it is not even perceived as a problem. That she assigns to the fact that developing countries have to re-invent themselves all the time and value all their resources. Estefanía believes that diversity is a sensible theme. And you can make people afraid of a topic if you communicate it the wrong way. When people asked her “why is wespace only for women” it took them a while to find how to communicate their message in a lightly but assertive way.

Hard on oneself, hard on others

Kate Hughes from the Zurich Insurance was asked about how minority groups sometime act specially harsh against other groups to deflect favoritism criticism. Being “the woman”, “the gay”, or “the black” in a team may lead to the fear of being in this very position not because of one’s own capacities but because of some company policy. This leads to the demanding behavior  against people of a similar grouping mentioned above. This can be a very toxic component of diversity and one which also needs to be managed consciously. Promoting diversity means recognizing key promoters in your organization, which are aware of such problems. Agreeing with Prof. Winfried about the usage of data, she mentions that data shows where problems start, and prediction models can help us solve that. We need therefore to identify these barriers and find people that stick their heads for these causes. Barriers can also be both vertical as well as horizontal: it is important to break silos in a diverser context too. For her, diversity is an important theme because disruption is everywhere, but how can you disrupt your business internally and still function externally. For that you need people capable of thinking in many different contexts.

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In Short

Yes, I agree with Honey that it is a shame we still need to discuss diversity in the modern day. The notion that multiple cultures, teams and people improve our chances in a ever more connected and diverse world should be a given. But as long as we need to discuss it, the better we have platforms where people that can show factual research in that area find a place to do so. And we will be there to listen.


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About the author
Julio Prina supports the Executive School at the University of St. Gallen in all themes digital, be it Blockchains, Artificial Intelligence or E-Learning.