The Six Hundred Pound (Diverse) Elephant

By Guy Higgins

Focusing on What Works for Workplace Diversity, an article recently published by McKinsey, discusses approaches for increasing (in this specific case) gender diversity in the workplace. Similarly, Damien Hooper-Campbell, the Chief Diversity Officer for eBay, spoke at a conference about how to increase diversity in the workplace.

The McKinsey article briefly mentions the correlation between (identity) diversity and performance right at the beginning and then promptly ignores how that improved performance might be achieved, focusing, instead, on developing ways to eliminate unconscious bias in the hiring process. Eliminating biases is good and it should pay off for any company successful in eliminating (or at least reducing those biases).

Mr. Hooper Campbell seems to assume that everyone is aware of the benefits of workplace diversity and he, in the above referenced piece, focuses on building trust among identity-diverse people. Trust is good, and it should pay off for any company that succeeds in building trust among the diverse (and even non-diverse) members of its workforce.

So, all that is good. What’s wrong, though, with this picture? I think that there are two things that are missing:

  • Gentlefolk Hooper-Campbell, Kirkland and Bohnet offered some good advice, but I really think (as I have alluded to before in these posts), that they’re missing something incredibly important – the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) factor.
  • Both McKinsey (the co-authors are Rik Kirkland and Iris Bohnet, by the way) and Mr. Hooper-Campbell don’t mention, or even acknowledge, that reaping success from diversity requires both knowing how to reap that success and the investment of significant effort in actually doing the reaping (change is not easy, and the “I work best with people like me” glacier is huge and will not turn without a lot of pushing).

So let’s talk about those two elephants in the room.

The WIIFM Factor – Companies have changed their behaviors significantly when they understand where and how they stand to benefit. My observation is that people want to do “what’s right,” but they will do “what benefits” them – first. That’s not a criticism; it’s an observation. Branch Ricky hired Jackie Robinson because he thought that Jackie could help him win championships. When the rest of the league saw how well Jackie played baseball, other teams started bring in African-American players – they saw what was in it for them and not just because integration was right (there was very little of that “what’s right” back then). But gaining performance improvements from diversity needs to have more on its side than just the correlated numbers. Correlation is not causation, and companies are reluctant to flip the “I believe” switch based on simple correlation. How does diversity create improved performance?

That’s a tough question, and answering it will be equally tough. There are two primary parts to the answer, and I’m going to address only the first of those in this post:

  • That first part of leveraging diversity to improve performance revolves around understanding what “diversity” is and how it opens up the opportunity for performance improvements. Research by Dr. Scott Page supports two important conclusions:
    • The diversity that actually leads to improved performance is cognitive diversity. There are three dimensions of cognitive diversity:
      • The ways in which we perceive the world. For example: as an engineer, I see three colors; red, green and blue. My illustrious editor sees other colors such as salmon (a fish in my perception), lilac (a flower), coral (an animal), mauve (I have no idea), teal (a duck), etc. Those are perceptive differences – differences in how we see and categorize things in the world.,
      • The ways in which we solve problems – our cognitive toolkit. Every person uses certain heuristics, (or rules of thumb) as well as more sophisticated approaches, to solve problems. For example, my wife and I both have Apple computers, using OSX. I tend to use keyboard shortcuts for many commands (copy, paste, cut, quit, save) while she uses the drop-down menus. We both get the same things done, but our toolkits are different. My son and I were having a discussion about the behavior of water at higher elevations (I live in Colorado and he lives in Maryland). We agreed about water boiling at a lower temperature at higher elevations, but we weren’t sure about the freezing point. He approached the issue from the phase diagram (a temperature/pressure plot of the three phases of water – solid, liquid, vapor) perspective. I thought about it from a thermodynamics perspective and what the water molecules would be doing. We both arrived at the same (correct) conclusion – water freezes at a higher temperature at higher elevations. Different toolkits – same answer. We both arrived at the same (correct) conclusion – water freezes at a higher temperature at higher elevations. Different toolkits – same conclusion, although I have to admit that his conclusion was more precise – he concluded that water would freeze at a very slightly higher temperature and I didn’t have a clue about how much higher it would be (some toolkits are better than others). The value of different toolkits in cognitive diversity is about good answers and better answers, not necessarily about right and wrong ones.
      • The ways that we make predictions. We all make predictions. Some are as simple as, “Will I like this movie (or, for me, is that salad mostly just weeds)?” Other predictions are more complex, such as, “Should I invest my tax refund in the stock market or in a CD?” In the simple case, we’ll tend to make the prediction based on previous experience, but in the second, we may consider where the market is right now, what the trend has been, historical data (and, maybe, what crazy Uncle Ed thinks). I may predict that the market will be the better investment while someone else, more financially conservative, will predict that the CD is a better investment. These different conclusions reflect different approaches to making a complex prediction.

We are all diverse to one extent or another in those three “dimensions.” That said, Brad Spahr (one of my classmates at the Naval Academy) who is, as am I, a white, male, Naval Aviator, aerospace engineer and Test Pilot School graduate, is much less different than he and/or I will be from a female, computer scientist with a degree from Harvey Mudd College in California, and the three of us will be enormously different from an African American PhD in philosophy from Brown.

  • Identity diversity is not cognitive diversity, but it correlates to cognitive diversity reasonably well. That said, identity diversity combined with (or perhaps expanded to include) more dimensions such as educational background, ethnic culture, economic background, inter alia, correlates even better.
  • Once organizational leadership understands what (cognitive) diversity is, that leadership also needs to appreciate/accept that:
    • They will have to listen to the advice of Gentlefolk Hooper-Campbell, Kirkland and Bohnet in overcoming subconscious biases in hiring and in building trust throughout their organization.
    • Cognitive diversity can be dominated by a phenomenon called “supercognitive identity.” Supercognitive identity is the tendency for all of us to assume the thought patterns and processes of our organization. Naval officers tend to think like naval officers. People in an engineering organization think like engineers in their organization. Bureaucrats think like bureaucrats. If the organization is going to benefit from cognitive diversity (or diversity at all), then the organization is going to have to recognize and mitigate supercognitive identity.
    • There is a very strong tendency for the people in organizations to hire and promote people with whom they are comfortable working. If we want to leverage the strengths of cognitive diversity, this is not a good thing. Generally speaking, we tend to be most comfortable working with people like us – that means that we’re likely to be sacrificing cognitive diversity and improved performance for comfort.

So, leadership needs to invest a lot of serious thinking and effort to set the stage for reaping the benefits of cognitive diversity. I take a stab at what that effort needs to encompass next week.




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