There’s a false belief wreaking havoc in the modern workplace that often goes undetected and unchallenged. It’s the belief that leading people who are different – and communicating effectively across differences – just requires respect, good intentions and common sense. But despite decades of good intentions and billions of dollars invested in “diversity” trainings, there are significant gaps in attraction, employee engagement, promotion and pay that persist for people of color, women, immigrants and other underrepresented groups. Low morale and productivity, reduced collaboration and innovation, lost revenue, outright conflict, public relations disasters and lawsuits are the tragic results.
The reason leading a diverse team is neither intuitive nor easy is rooted in human history. Human beings evolved to interact in groups of about 150 other similar human beings – in our entire lifetimes. For most of our 250,000-year history, this was our reality, and the reality our brains are still wired to manage. In less than a second, based on limited, mostly visual data, we constantly and unconsciously categorize people we don’t know well as either “friend” or “foe.”
Today, most people interact with more humans – and more human differences – than our brain is designed to navigate. That, plus unprecedented levels of chronic stress, causes us to rely on pattern-based shortcuts in our ancient “downstairs brain” to function in the world and make myriad daily decisions. However, those shortcuts are built on unconscious databases – forming outside our conscious awareness since birth – containing incomplete and inaccurate information. Categorizing people quickly aided our survival for thousands of years, but it’s ineffective for managing modern workforces and making decisions in complex environments.
As leaders, we often trust our gut and experience to make the daily decisions that affect our team and its results. From hiring, to assigning projects, to giving feedback to grabbing coffee, we constantly communicate and make decisions that create an inclusive culture that fosters excellence – or not. Humans are notoriously poor at accurately assessing our own behavior, and most of us are blind to how our “downstairs brain” gravitates towards the familiar and comfortable. The familiar and comfortable aren’t always the best decisions that yield superior results.
Leading a diverse team is hard, and often rife with conflict. We’re not wired for it (yet) and doing so effectively requires the use of our “upstairs brain”, which burns more calories. However, the research shows that ultimately diverse groups outperform individuals, non-diverse groups, and even a group consisting of the best – but only when there is inclusive, effective management of differences.
Coaching is the little-known key to doing diversity right, leading inclusively, and disrupting ineffective patterns stemming from our ancient brains. One workshop or employee training won’t do it. It’s only through a temporary investment in focused awareness, increased self-knowledge and action-to-accountability that leaders can hard-wire their brains to new, more effective patterns. It’s only through investing in leaders’ ability to lead across differences – beyond mere respect and good intentions – that organizations will find themselves positioned for success in the 21st Century.
Susana Rinderle coaches and trains diversity and inclusion champions, change-makers, and leaders to higher levels of professional effectiveness and personal satisfaction. She helps leaders and organizations solve a pressing problem or go from good to great through the power of inclusive leadership. She has spent 25 years garnering meaningful results for employers and clients across the U.S. and abroad in multiple sectors including nonprofit, corporate, healthcare, education and government. She was proudly featured at TEDxABQ 2012 speaking on "Diversity is Necessary for Human Evolution.” She's known among her clients and workshop participants for being competent, knowledgeable, engaging or warm, passionate, effective, impeccable, and for having high integrity.