Beyond the tick-box culture

Jun 11 2007 by Julia Middleton Print This Article

For many people, the notion of workplace diversity has become a legal tripwire, a set of targets to be met or a problem to be overcome. As a result, discussions about diversity often embrace nothing more than statistics and quotas. It's no wonder that people are beginning to get tired of the whole thing and wanting to get beyond this tick-box culture.

But diversity is about much more than ticking boxes and the benefits of harnessing it much more than simply meeting targets. The essence of diversity is difference - and this is as much about different ways of thinking and seeing the world as it is about categories and classifications such as race, gender or age.

Over the past few years, many business leaders have woken up to the fact that they need to extend their talent pool if they want to recruit and retain the best people. If they don't look in less conventional places for the next wave of talent, they will miss out.

Some employers are also starting to recognise that people prefer to work in environments where not everyone comes from the same background. Yet simply getting people through the door is not enough.

I went to a large investment bank in London the other day, invited by a man who had heard me speak about diversity. He was proud of his company's record and told me that his organisation was what diversity really meant. He enthused that his company didn't conform to the usual city stereotype of 'male, pale and stale' and that it does employ people from all backgrounds, beliefs and countries.

I watched and listened - and he was right. They did employ a wide range of people. It was fabulous watching the world brought together in nearly every corner and it was clear that this bank had made diversity a strategic priority.

But as I spoke to people, I began to realise that they left their diversity at home each morning. This meant that, though this investment bank was drawing on a large pool of talent, it was producing a culture where there was none of the discord of diversity and, consequently, they were not really getting the richness of ideas.

With the difference left at home, they were not seeing different angles, questioning each other's assumptions, spotting risks and being creative like a really diverse team can be when they bring their diversity to work with them.

It's not enough to simply bring people together. They need to learn to discover how exactly everybody is different, as we all are, and learn how to work in a culture where this difference is a strength to be harnessed.

I'm tired of the usual conversations about diversity. I'm tired of hearing leaders telling me how many 'diverse' people they employ and quoting percentages to prove it. I want to hear about the different people they listen to and who influences how they think.

I want to understand the struggles they personally go through to understand the issue of diversity. Of the doors they have opened for others. About the personal stands they have made recently, either against discrimination or against all the meaningless words people use when we talk about diversity in percentage terms.

Mostly though, I want to hear about the creativity and energy that difference brings to their thinking and their strategy.

Diversity is about harnessing the discord of difference. It's not simply about the recruitment of a 'diverse' group of people who all end up behaving the same at work and saving their difference for out of hours.

The discord of difference sounds like a negative term and a difficult environment to work in, but it really isn't. Diverse teams generate more energy, challenge the status quo and spot new angles faster than those that are not. Diversity in this context is utterly compelling Ė and definitely much more than just about bureaucracy, quotas and ticking boxes. Once you've genuinely been part of a team like that, you'll never want to go back.

About The Author

Julia Middleton
Julia Middleton

Julia Middleton is Chief Executive of Common Purpose, which she founded in 1989. Common Purpose runs community-based leadership development programs (described as a "street-smart MBA") in over 50 cities in the UK and in many cities in Europe, Africa, and India.