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Heritage Day: Embracing Diversity for Organizational Success. Explore how diversity can be an asset in fostering innovation and inclusivity.

Research confirms that diversity in organisations as represented in the composition of the board, executive, and operational teams contributes to better performance compared to less diversified entities. Diversity manifests in organisations in a variety of ways (for example culture, religion, disability, gender, race, age, skills, and experiences). Despite the fact of reported benefits associated with the inclusion of a variety of people, there is still slow progress on this aspect in organisations over time and the road ahead remains long.

In general, we naturally tend to look for people who are the same as us. This creates comfort and reinforces our current thinking and doing. However, this pattern is not gifting us with an abundance of new ideas and a wider spectrum of views. The sameness of views does not disturb us or create a need for considering alternative perspectives on the “way we do things around here” – a popular description of organisation culture.

What practices do progressive organisations then follow to leverage diversity as an asset? To foster an innovative and inclusive culture, organisations promote equality and diversity of people in the workplace. Spotify, the global innovation lead provider of digital audio streaming services, confirms the importance of this departure point by employing a full-time management role focusing exclusively on diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Spotify actively experiments to attract and unlock all talent to enable diversity and inclusion, creating new roles as required to service new emerging market needs on a continuous basis.

A key indicator of workplace attractiveness, and the potential to satisfy employee expectations, is the extent to which people feel included in the organisation. The extent to which people feel included and accepted in an organisation is dependent on the level to which the organisation’s leadership demonstrates that they value and embrace diversity. Research indicates that when organisations focus on inclusivity through practices such as developing and enhancing team cohesion, given the inherent diversity, employees are 1.7 times more likely than those at other organisations to feel very included. In organisations that follow a merit-based approach in performance management and career advancement practices, employees are 1.4 times more likely to feel very included compared to other companies. The support of at least one internal sponsor increases the experience of employees being included in the organisation by a factor of 1.6 compared to others with no support. Support from leaders also aids the career advancement of underrepresented employees. Opportunities to engage in a meaningful way with leadership increase the inclusion experience of employees. Clarity on a shared sense of purpose binds members in an organisation around a focus on what they want to achieve individually and collectively through leveraging diversity.

Workplace practices that focus on fostering a culture of inclusion for all in organisations are a positive start toward valuing diversity. In endearing organisations, diversity in its widest sense is seen as a strength that can be leveraged to the benefit of multiple stakeholders. Seeking dissent voices is part of embracing diversity.

Applying defendable ethical practices in business is an ongoing challenge. Our moral foundation is part of our self-concept, and differences in moral formation create moral relativity, moral plurality, and moral diversity. This implies that we all look differently at ethical dilemmas leading to diverse perspectives. In environments where the diversity of people is low, the chance for challenging established ethical practices is low.

A distributed leadership approach and capacity in organisations support leadership diversity and depth. A distributed leadership style implies that anyone can take on leadership activities and that people are not waiting for somebody (normally from the top) to take the lead.

Seeking diversity of perspectives is also an integral ingredient of successful business strategies. A top-down perspective often only achieves unity of purpose while a bottom-up process sometimes only achieves diversity of perspective as many voices are heard and many options are explored.

Gary Hamel, the strategy innovation expert indicates that “Unity without diversity leads to dogma and diversity without unity results in competing strategy agendas and fragmentation of resources. Only a strategy-making process, which is both deep and wide, can achieve both diversity and unity.”

When we see diversity mainly as a problem to be avoided, we miss out on all the opportunities to make it a real asset to increase the innovation capacity of an organisation. Diversity and unique gifts of people are contributions toward more integrated and holistic solutions for intractable business challenges – those issues that resurface over time despite previous efforts.

One of the messages of Heritage Day is that we should expand and utilise diversity as a force for continuous improvement. We must create and maintain a management system that values diversity, disagreement, and divergence as much as conformance, consensus, and cohesion. Our ambition and energies should be focused on creating organisational realities where we let members contribute in their distinctive ways, appreciating the differences in roles, education, background, interests, skills, character, and points of view.

*This view is an extract from the book Afro-global Management Innovation Practices by Prof Marius Ungerer. He is an Emeritus Professor from the Stellenbosch University Business School and a Business Consultant to industry.

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