By Kelly Kincaid
If you’ve read any of the numerous studies and business innovation bestsellers out there (here we’ll tip our hats to Intel for putting its money where its mouth is), you know that diversity drives innovation. But we don’t always grasp how to go about fostering the kind of diversity that will push innovation. Just ask Silicon Valley. Or Hollywood. Or Washington, D.C. Without the right approach, efforts at cultivating a diverse workplace will miss the mark. We’ll look at what the right approach is to growing diversity, the connection between technology and diversity, and how to manage diversity using collaborative tools like video conferencing to get innovative results.
Before we consider how technology can help, let’s go over the basics. Why is diversity such a complicated idea? It starts with our terminology. Diversity has become a generic and often misleading catchphrase. Think Orientalism, corporate America-style, with two categories: the default—white, male Americans—and everybody else, in the Other category. Yes, we absolutely need to get non-white, non-male and non-Americans in the room. But if your end-goal is an innovative business culture, you won’t attain it simply by hiring from the Other category. It’s going to take more than that.
To get the real benefits of workplace diversity, we have to imagine diversity differently. It’s not just a category to be checked off; rather, achieving diversity is the product of fostering a rich landscape of identities. Consider this: each one of us is made up of multiple subject positions, like points on a 3D graph. Some points are fixed, some are not. Some points are visible to others, some are not. These points include—but aren’t limited to—age, sex, sexual orientation, race, dis/ability, religion, socioeconomic status, and political views. Each one of us perceives the importance of every point differently, depending on our values, beliefs, daily lives, and circumstances. In short, much of our identity isn’t static—it’s dynamic. Adding to this landscape is our role in the workplace, our different levels of power within a group, and our unique communication preferences.
Bringing Together Diverse Identities Through Communication
So once you have a diverse workplace, how can you ensure it’s propelling your company forward? The key is inclusion, and we need great communication to get there. Let’s pretend an HR manager has composed a team of people representing the full human landscape. What’s next is building working relationships based on mutual respect. Research demonstrates that the defining trait of any successful team is teammates who treat each other respectfully, establishing the psychological safety of group members. Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School describes this safety net as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
Now, having a safety net doesn’t mean your team can’t or shouldn’t argue; debate and discourse are necessary components of producing innovative solutions to business problems. The goal is for team members to freely interact, share ideas, and tackle impediments.
In a diverse workplace, unconscious bias and stereotyping can obstruct this goal; the only solution is to acknowledge issues as they arise and address them head-on. Professional educator Steve Lowisz clarifies, “HR professionals need to embrace the uncomfortable conversations that might result from learning to ‘deal with differences’. People shouldn’t be ‘tolerating’ each other; you need to start accepting people. Don’t be afraid to talk about what may or may not be offensive. You need to start learning about each other and start communicating.” So what’s the best way to communicate? That’s what we’ll talk about next.
Technology and Diversity: Encouraging Innovation with the Help of Tools
According to author and Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill, a workplace leader’s goal should be to foster an “idea marketplace”—that’s what you get when you combine diversity with respectful collaboration. Cue collaborative technology as the great equalizer (but ensure the tech you choose is accessible to every member of your team). Even if everyone is working in the same office, the right software and communication tools can facilitate creative brainstorming and problem-solving.
Think of the right technology as a workplace-hierarchy workaround that can help leaders manage a diverse workplace. Video chat is one way to invite debate in multiple settings, countering workplace power differentials. Meeting in a virtual video conference room welcomes participation and appeals to diverse communication styles. Video conferencing with chat functionality is a particularly effective medium because it gives colleagues the benefit of a face-to-face exchange without the underlying in-room dynamics. Adding a chat tool facilitates engagement for those less likely to speak up during an in-person meeting. And it goes without saying that video conferencing sessions should be easy to record and even easier to share, so that everyone can access them.
In virtual shared spaces, workplace leaders should encourage and model curiosity, passion, and empathy. As Edmondson explains, a leader should “ask genuine questions and listen intently to the responses, display deep enthusiasm for achieving team goals, and show they’re attuned to everyone’s diverse perspectives no matter their position in the hierarchy.”
Managers should be prepared to argue from every side equally, providing counterpoints to challenge preconceptions and encourage balanced discussions.
Whatever your role in the workplace, contributing to a healthy working environment should be your priority. And since communication plays such a big part in a workplace, you’ll want to make use of all every tool available, including video conferencing. Just keep in mind the ultimate goal: we should all believe that we belong. As former President George W. Bush recently said, “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” It’s long past time that we do better.