When an organization commits to creating a more diverse workforce and inclusive environment, one common criticism is that doing so causes divisiveness and unnecessary friction. This criticism can be expressed directly or it can manifest as an undercurrent of unstated resistance.
Similar resistance often shows up in response to conversations about race. It often stems from the belief that discussions about race and racism cause problems that didn’t exist before, because racism today is created or perpetuated by those who talk about it.
These criticisms are false. Most people who hold such ideas are well intended, but make the mistaken assumption that if something doesn’t exist for them, it doesn’t exist at all. What’s odd is this error of logic doesn’t apply to most other areas of work life. Humans are remarkable in our ability to communicate new, complex information to other humans, then record that information for future generations. This process has helped us survive hostile habitats and evolve rapidly, since (ideally) we don’t have to waste time relearning knowledge gained by our ancestors.
Our curiosity and openness to new information has been crucial to this evolution. Tens of thousands of years ago, if a homo sapiens told another homo sapiens where they’d discovered a food source and the recipient of the information said, “Nah, I don’t see that, therefore it doesn’t exist,” our species would have died out long ago.
Likewise, if a friend told you about a great new restaurant and you replied, “Nah, I don’t know about that, therefore it must not exist,” you’d look silly and miss out on an excellent meal. You’d also come across as a pretty arrogant son of a gun. The other person would never recommend a restaurant to you again.
Missing out on tasty food is no big deal. But what if the information offered is a big deal? What if the information will help solve a problem, avoid a problem or get ahead of a problem? We then ignore the information at our own peril. Examples abound in organizations, industry, and even our economy, from Deepwater Horizon to the 2008 financial crisis to Donald Trump’s presidential win.
Ignoring information we don’t have, that another person is providing, isn’t only arrogant, it’s stupid. It’s bad business, poor leadership and ineffective decision making. So why do we brush off people of color, women, millennials, LGBTQ, those with disabilities and even hard data when they tell us there’s a need for more diversity or inclusiveness? Or when they say they experience prejudice or unfair barriers that disrupt their effectiveness?
Dismissing these gifts of information outright as unimportant, imagined or false is the definition of bigotry and a symptom of the very problem at hand. It’s also dangerously short-sighted and misguided. This information isn’t the cause of divisiveness, it’s a symptom of existing divisions. It isn’t the noxious gas in the coal mine, it’s the canary.
The business case for diversity is clear, robust and data-driven; years of evidence show diversity plus inclusiveness gets better results and diverse teams out perform individuals, non-diverse teams and even a group of the best. The best and the brightest want to work in environments that support their brilliance and excellence, where they can contribute their gifts for collective benefit.
Their perceptions and experiences are among the gifts they bring. If the problems and solutions they uncover aren’t taken seriously and addressed in a meaningful way, they — especially millennials — vote with their feet.
When someone brings up race or racism, or champions diversity and inclusiveness, the best response expresses the same curiosity, trust and commitment to creative action that helped our ancestors survive. The divisions and problems were there before someone brought them to your attention. Talking about them, exploring their impact and taking action to solve the problem may be uncomfortable, but since when has discomfort been sufficient reason to dismiss business-critical information? No leader is expected to know everything; that’s why they have a team. Surely effective leaders who expect to lead thriving organizations in the 21st century have the strength and resilience to hear surprising, even inconvenient truths.
Those that cannot, or will not hear these truths — dismissing them on their face as divisive — do so at their peril. Not only will their results suffer, so will their bottom line.