Diversity and performance: Why they are inseparable

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Mike Straw

Written by Mike Straw

Diversity and performance: Why they are inseparable

Diversity and inclusion are at long last coming to the forefront of the agenda for organisations. But while this is good news in its own right, it would be a mistake to think that D&I is only a question of ethics. There is also a business case.


The question of diversity doesn’t only belong in a D&I meeting or department. If we’re serious about making an impact, breaking new ground or developing high performing teams, then diversity needs to stay in the spotlight. Because when we shift from talking about diversity to talking about team performance, we’re not talking about two separate issues.


Re-examining the superchickens

Back in 2015, Margaret Heffenan made widely-known the findings of William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University, who studied the productivity of chickens. 


If you’re not familiar with the story behind the research, here’s a quick recap. He left an average flock alone for six generations and they turned out just fine - plump, with a steadily increasing production of eggs.


Muir also tried to create a superflock bred from only the most productive chickens. But after leaving them alone for six generations, there were only three featherless chickens left, the rest had been killed off. Their competitiveness had turned to hostility and waste. 


While measuring human productivity isn’t as simple as counting eggs, many organisations have resonated with this story over the years. The message was simple: a model built on superstars and competition will collapse upon itself. It’s also to some extent the fate that awaits the non-diverse team. If we prioritise productivity over diversity, we may end up with neither.


The anatomy of a high performing team

Heffernan offered an alternative, pointing to the work of researchers at MIT who made two separate studies of 699 people, each working in teams of two to five to complete a variety of simple and complex tasks. 


The MIT researchers found that performance wasn’t the product of a combined high individual intelligence. Instead, the highest performing teams were distinguished by their social sensitivity, their equality of conversational turn-taking and, strikingly, the number of women in the group.


While the researchers came to no conclusions as to why high performing teams had a high proportion of women, it makes a case for diversity. Maybe women tend to be more empathetic with or connected to people who have a different perspective to them. Even if you can’t draw such a direct correlation between them, these collaborative qualities need to be our priority if we want to perform.


Our context is decisive

It should go without saying but you can’t benefit from a variety of perspectives if you only listen to yourself. The catch is: this is what many leaders do without realising. Their intuition and understanding is guided by their own frames of reference and their own experience of the world. So while we might invite the input of others, if we don’t get present to our own internal reality, we won't let them affect our blind spots.


We start every client project with context. We hope to leave clients with more empathy just by making them aware of their influences. Our aim is to loosen their relationship to their frame of reference so that they see the value of what lies outside it. 


The creativity of innovators is often channelled towards what could make life better for them. It’s not necessarily selfish, it’s simply that they’re finding solutions to the problems they see and experience. But if anything is outside that experience, it can create issues for accessibility.


So what would happen if we hired more disabled people to design our phones, for example? Chances are, it would make the product better, with features that take more people into account. Diversity invites inclusive design and thinking, which is the kind of innovation we desperately need. 


Widening your selection of winning moves

 You can’t artificially create diversity with flexibility of thought. But once a diverse collection of leaders are in the room, once they are at the decision table with you, then empathy is essential. With this in mind, we explore communication preferences with many of our clients, helping leaders to realise that they don’t listen and respond in the same way as others.


Here’s the thing. Everyone listens out for different elements in a conversation to respond to. And placed in a room with others, everyone has their own set of winning moves that makes them successful. But the minute that becomes your sole mode of operating, you can get stuck.


One senior executive we coach tells people freely that one of their winning moves is to show up as the most compelling person in the room. It’s helped them to win sales opportunities, to inspire leaders and to prompt others to show up as their best selves too. But they also acknowledge that they have to be careful not to stay in that mode too long. At other times, a different approach is needed and maybe someone else’s winning move needs to take centre stage.


A diverse team will not only have a wider, truer perspective, it will have a wider selection of winning moves too. Which can only increase the team’s agility, enabling them to perform well in a variety of circumstances. 


Businesses aren’t machines. It’s always been the people that matter more than the business functions we build - and diversity is about people at the end of the day. It’s connection and empathy and a diversity of people that will raise our performance beyond what we’ve known. 

You can’t form an effective superstar team. But you can create a diverse one. Get in touch to explore how we can help you ignite your ambitions.


Published 11/02/2021

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