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  • Writer's pictureSetche Kwamu-Nana

Diversity of thought at your company: A façade or a hidden gem?

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

(U-T illustration/iStock)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of occasional columns about diversity in the workplace by Setche Kwamu-Nana, an inclusion, diversity and equity trainer/consultant.

In an ever-increasingly disruptive and competitive world, many organizations now grasp the strategic importance of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility — what I call IDEA — in driving business outcomes like fostering employee engagement, customer relations, innovation, sustainable development and competitive advantage. As an IDEA professional, business leaders usually ask me how to leverage diversity not just to keep their organizations from getting obliterated, but also to maximize impact and profit and contribute to social good.

I’ve noticed that while some organizations prioritize representation in traditional forms of diversity like race, gender, and disability, others purport that diversity of thought — diversity comprised of people who think differently from each other — is all that matters, and trumps all other forms of diversity. Sometimes, organizations of the latter persuasion end up ignoring other aspects of diversity as they try to zero-in on diversity of thought. They find it easier and more comfortable to address. But is this approach effective at reaping the social and economic benefits of diversity?

What drives diversity of thought, and how do we leverage it? Traditional forms of diversity are the primary dimensions of diversity; they are instrumental in fueling diversity of thought and realizing the resulting goals. Understanding the value of the primary dimensions of diversity is essential to developing a successful inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility strategy to achieve desired business outcomes.

There are four main dimensions of diversity; one is innate, and the rest are acquired.

Primary dimensions of diversity are inborn, are our most powerful differences, and have the most significant impact on our early socialization and how we experience and see the world. Examples include race, gender, class and mental/physical ability etc.

Secondary dimensions of diversity are acquired and can be modified or discarded based on our choices and needs. Examples include cognitive style, spiritual beliefs, education, skills, etc.

Organizational dimensions of diversity are acquired and are attributes that pertain to the workplace experience. Examples include work experience, department, level etc.

Finally, cultural dimensions of diversity are acquired and are the traits, behaviors, preferences, or values shaped by culture. Examples include a relationship with time, power and authority views, being or doing, and flexible or structured.

These differences shape our experiences and our thinking. The more dimensions of diversity we have in the room, the more diversity of thought we will generate. So, an integrated approach that seeks representation of both inborn (primary) and acquired dimensions of diversity is more likely to drive better diversity of thought and out-of-the-box thinking, as well as the skills and resources needed to make the ideas reality.

However, it is not enough to have varied perspectives; we also have to be able to execute the goals resulting from those perspectives by leveraging relevant relationships and building bridges and strategic partnerships.

Primary dimensions of diversity are most influential in building those bridges and relationships with diverse customer bases, suppliers, and partners. Additionally, when the employee population reflects the diversity of the customers, organizations are more likely to develop products or services more suitable for the customers. This is demonstrated in the stories of the facial-recognition systems that falsely identify Black and Asian faces 10 to 100 times more than Caucasian faces, or the crash test dummies that didn’t factor in safety for female bodies, just to name a few. Furthermore, today, employees and customers are more loyal to organizations where they see themselves represented, not just in the employee base, but also in the supply chain and network of partners.

The story below illustrates how primary dimensions of diversity can play a crucial role not just in engendering diverse ideas, but also in ensuring successful implementation of the chosen pursuits resulting from those ideas.

Takeda Abbott, a large drug manufacturer, initially didn’t realize the value in marketing its prostate cancer medicine, Lupron Depot, to African-American urologists. However, Julius Pryor III, an African-American executive, who worked for Takeda at the time, persuaded the company to invest in marketing Lupron to the African-American community. He did so after discovering that African-American men had a 60 percent higher incidence of prostate cancer than the general population, and much higher mortality and morbidity from the disease due to late screenings.

Pryor and his team leveraged his relationships in the African-American community to build strategic partnerships with African-American urologists nationally. African-American physicians made up only 4 percent of the urologists in the US but were eventually responsible for approximately 20 percent of the total sales of the medicine. More importantly, Takeda Abbott provided valuable prostate cancer education and screening for an at-risk and often underserved patient population. Lupron went on to become a global billion-dollar blockbuster.

To foster and fully employ diversity of thought, it is not enough to simply recruit for representation from diverse populations and dimensions of diversity. It is vital to have a comprehensive IDEA strategy that systemically helps propel clearly defined organizational goals. Such holistic practical strategies mitigate the risks of ineffectiveness, common with piecemeal IDEA activities.

As you can see, diversity of thought is the outcome of successful inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility efforts, which includes representation, development, belonging, and structural reforms. So, rather than conflate diversity of thought with diversity and use it as a justification to gloss over traditional forms of diversity, strive for comprehensive IDEA to keep your organization competitive, through productivity gains, enhancing brand awareness, expanding markets, augmenting social good, and more.

If augmenting social justice/good is not your cup of tea, or hearing the word diversity induces fatigue or resentment in you, at least remember the business imperative, which Julius Pryor III, IDEA executive and author of the book “Thriving In A Disruptive World” nicely articulates in his quote, “I don’t do diversity programs, I drive business outcomes!” So, like a sage, practice lasting transformational IDEA, to fuel your money-making ideas.

Setche Kwamu-Nana is an inclusion, diversity, and equity (IDE) professional, building bridges that transform hearts, minds, systems, and behaviors. She has a degree in chemical engineering, an MBA with a concentration in human resource management, and is a Certified Diversity Professional by the National Diversity Council. She worked as an IDE leader at Caterpillar Inc. and Intuit Inc., and is also a facilitator at the National Conflict Resolution Center and Non-profit Management Solutions.

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