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Unlocking business advantage from diversity and inclusion – the missing ingredients

Have you been in a diverse team where you learned a lot, contributed your strengths, had fun and got a lot done creatively? It’s magic when it works. It’s painful when it doesn’t. Research shows that diverse teams either outperform or underperform, not much in the middle.


Whether we lead a large organisation or a small team, we regularly work with people who are different. Even if we manage to hire a team who ‘fit’ well, we still have to work with other teams, stakeholders, clients, suppliers, outsourced partners etc. who may be quite different to us. Our ability to work effectively with diversity in thinking, style and personality – even if you have not yet achieved the desired gender, ethnic or other forms of diversity – will set us apart from those who keep trying to work with people who are similar or to have people ‘fit’ (see The problem with obsessing about cultural ‘fit’).


Our ability to lead and work effectively with different people is a significant business advantage. It should also facilitate achieving diversity targets in organisations as leaders naturally and proactively look to harness differences. (See Are you a leader that brings out the best from a mix of different people?)


Diversity and inclusion efforts have primarily focused on unconscious bias, inclusive leadership, flexibility and recruitment practices. While valuable, they are not sufficient in unlocking business advantage from diversity and inclusion.


The first missing ingredient is the ability to harness divergence - the skilful facilitation of constructive conflict. When we have diversity of all kinds, it is inevitable that the differences create disagreement and conflict. The skilful use of these differences to have constructive conflict that leads to collaborative learning and innovation is key to realising business benefits from diversity. Too often we shy away from or smooth over conflict rather than use differences for learning and innovation (see Can ‘harmony’ be damaging your team and organisation?)


Austin Kenny’s article People in Positions of Responsibility - Their behaviour in conflict and the impact they have on others points to some of the skills leaders need. 


The second missing ingredient is the ability to build convergence - the ability to unite people who are uniquely different. By rallying people around a cause, a meaningful mission or inspiring goal, a diverse team can become greater than the sum of the parts. With a uniting force, different people – whether visibly different or different in skills, personality, style, experience, perspectives etc. – their unique talents can contribute greatly to a common cause. The trick is to unite a group of different people while enabling each person to express their unique differences without feeling like they need to fit in.


The two capabilities of leveraging divergence – the unique talents, and convergence – the united force, can be sources of business advantage that is very difficult to replicate.


How well do you or your organisation harness divergence and build convergence?


For more on unlocking business advantage from diversity and inclusion, see my white paper Rethinking Diversity for Competitive Advantage.


Related articles:

Power dynamics beyond hierarchy and positional power

Stop focusing on diversity as a fairness issue

Unconscious bias is a business issue, not just a diversity issue

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