What you haven’t been told about diversity

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What you haven’t been told about diversity

Most of us know or have heard about the significant benefits of diversity. Some know it deep down and others have heard what they think is good rhetoric and are not sure to what extent they should believe it.

There is significant global research evidencing the benefits of diversity. In short, the benefits to boards are improved effectiveness, performance and decision-making. Much of the benefit arises because of the board being more diligent, considered, focused, less presumptuous, lateral in thinking and rigorous on important issues.

That’s what most of us know. So, what haven’t we been told?

Diverse groups take longer to build trust and rapport

If you are part of a diverse group, it means you are with a variety of people with different (group) identities within the same social system, who think differently from you.

Diversity is multidimensional and extends beyond overt surface-level differences of gender, ethnicity, race and age that we tend to associate it with. On an intrapsychic level, diversity refers to more understated attributes that are not necessarily immediately or directly observed. These typically relate to group members’ personalities, attitudes, beliefs and values.

Add to this the functional indicators of diversity such as profession, occupation, vocation, expertise and/or status that also need to be considered for a board to be high performing. These indicators often tend to be overshadowed by the propensity to focus on gender as a social categorisation that can negatively impact overall group functioning, especially when imbalanced and tokenistic.

Given all these various dimensions that make up the different social identities, being part of a diverse group as such, takes time to build trusting and cohesive group relations. It requires a willingness to embrace difference, to learn and come to appreciate others’ uniqueness which is attributes that are not like us – be it differences in character, attitude, belief, values, knowledge, experience and motivations.

Difference is confronting and uncomfortable, it is easy to allow ourselves to succumb to unconscious biases that can negatively shape a board’s composition and group functioning. It’s having the courage to let one’s guard down, to not defend against what is not known to us and allow ourselves to expose aspects of who we are to others that are not like us, so we can walk a mile in their shoes and vice versa.

Many directors tell us that they are put on a board with people that they wouldn’t normally associate with on a social basis. Nor would they consider inviting them into their home. They are just ‘a bit too different’.

You’re not like us!

Additional or longer board meetings are not the stop gap solution to build deeper relationships, trust and rapport needed to form a highly effective and high functioning group. As directors lead busy lives, they can often find themselves rushing to get to a meeting at the last minute and then rushing off at the conclusion of the meeting. This is not conducive to directors getting to know each other and the executive. It may also be an indicator of avoidance of connecting with the group. We like to challenge these behaviours and arguments around directors being time poor and suggest possibly there is a masking of an issue around intolerable group dynamics and a groups intolerance to difference.

In our experience, directors who are conscious of their difference, are most likely to feel they are in the minority (outgroup). Whereas the majority of the group (ingroup) may have a natural tendency not to mix; alienating ‘others’ who are not like them and making those in the minority feel unwelcome. In these scenarios, the divides are highly evident where the group is split into a dominating homogenous (‘like us’) subgroup and those in minority (‘not like us’/’the other’) form sentience around their difference, then tend to mix with their own kind. These subgroups are often split along gender lines and similarly can be split along other demographic lines.

Directors in diverse groups need to be inclusive

It’s not uncommon for directors to gravitate to those they know well and are more like them. Getting to know ‘others’ requires real effort. And unless diverse groups, including boards, invest time and make the effort to build deep relationships, trust and rapport they won’t get the full benefits of being part of a diverse group. Worse still, the lack of effort might mean the extent of difference often leads to a form of dysfunctionality that often goes beneath the surface of the board’s dynamics. If those who are most different to the majority are excluded and kept on the outer, they may feel disconnected, objectified, minimised and/or dismissed or invalidated by the group.

Some extra informal time such as board dinners is required and hugely beneficial for directors to feel a sense of belonging and validation of their social identity with the Board. These social gatherings allow directors to really get to know each other, to build rapport and a sense of unity that embeds trusting relationships required for a high functioning board.

Whilst the need for extra informal time with each other is often self-evident not enough Chairs take a leadership position in making sure this occurs – and not enough directors provide the necessary support for this important bonding activity. The board dinners won’t organise themselves!

Please see our separate article on board dinners and how they can be used to build alignment, unity, trust and cohesive relations between directors.

Some other suggestions are site visits where directors share a bus together or where directors go as a group to stay in a hotel at another location. These are great opportunities for directors to get to know each other better. But not all boards make the most of these opportunities. Too often directors will book into different hotels and not even join each other for dinner. Again, leadership is required, normally from the Chair or CEO to ensure that the opportunities available are maximised.

We also recommend that boards facilitate a budding up system where each director buddies up with another director who is most different to them and for both to them to dedicate one hour or so, to get to know each other’s backgrounds, upbringing and motivations.

The full benefits of diversity

The full benefits of diversity will only be achieved if all directors go out of their way, especially following the induction of new directors, to make new directors welcome and to get to know each other. This will require genuine effort from all directors, including the new ones. Ideally, this approach will become part of the board’s culture – and just the way we do things around here.

Diversity and inclusion amongst boards, and between the board and management will help the board build great resilience, better enable robust discussions and position the board to be more effective in dealing with crisis. This is evidenced in high-performing boards whose embrace of diversity has led them to improve decision-making processes through the increase in creativity and innovation garnered from a collective difference. That is the greater variety of perspectives shared and listened to around the board.

If you would like to discuss this further, please feel free to get in touch.

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