Embracing True Diversity in Times of Crisis
Meet Paul—a seasoned professional who was recently hired by a famous international organization to be a regional crisis lead. Given the organization's informal, free-flowing, and innovative culture, Paul was confident about taking on his new role. The head of resilience and the human resources team made a conscious choice to hire him. He has an unusual professional and educational background, and his new perspective should foster more efficiency, innovation, and agility in the regional and global crisis teams. But for the organization to reap the benefits of diverse thinking, the commitment to inclusion shouldn’t stop at a job offer.
For the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, diversity refers to “an obvious fact of human life—namely, that there are many different kinds of people—and the idea that this diversity drives cultural, economic, and social vitality and innovation.”
Today, the word “diversity” is strongly associated with racial and gender diversity, and the business case for it is stronger than ever. A 2020 report from McKinsey & Company, Diversity wins: How inclusion matters, states that companies that foster gender diversity are 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability compared to companies that don’t.
Now, let us take it one step further. As noted by Berkeley, diversity among people is much richer yet complex to grasp. We differ in language, education, lifestyle, professional background, religion, ethnicity, gender, health, culture, social roles, sexual orientation, skills, income, political views, and countless other domains. In recent years, neurodiversity, which refers to the range of brain function differences, has even been recognized as another piece of the diversity map.
Considering that people in general—and decision makers in particular—tend to seek out or construe data in a way that corroborates their preconceived ideas (a tendency called confirmation bias in psychology and cognitive science), we can easily imagine how complex and unsettling it is to deal with such a high level of diversity among their teams and colleagues.
Yet, during crises, those decision makers are expected to think outside the box and lead through change. Change means conflict—conflicting thoughts, conflicting opinions, conflicting needs, conflicting objectives, and conflicting feelings. That is the negative perception of change. If we want to use a more constructive term: change also means diversity—diversity of thoughts, diversity of opinions, and diversity of needs. Diversity is inherent to a crisis.
During a recent crisis, Paul witnessed his CEO and executive team say that the situation was so challenging and high-profile that they did not want to gather the regular crisis management team to lead through it. The CEO and her team of three did not want to get anyone else’s opinion. They managed the crisis behind closed doors. Paul tried to convince them otherwise, without much success. They had a heated discussion about it, but the CEO did not change her mind. Her leitmotiv was: “The crisis is challenging enough. I cannot afford to have wild thinkers around the table. I need clarity.”
Eventually, the company did survive the crisis. From the standpoint of the CEO and her inner circle, that was a significant win. But elsewhere in the company—including for Paul—the story is slightly different. Across the company, the communication flow was severely damaged, Paul and many of his colleagues no longer trusted management, and employees’ motivation decreased. And after being labeled uncooperative and emotional, Paul moved on to another company. He realized that, for this company, diversity was just a façade.
In a recent article, we noted that an efficient and sharp crisis leader focuses on others’ needs. Focusing on others means accepting differences without judgment, which requires a high level of self-awareness and empathy. In other words, beyond the quotas and statistics, implementing bonafide diversity means promoting a significant level of emotional intelligence throughout the company, from top to bottom.
So, what does it entail for an organization, its leaders, managers, and employees to thoroughly and holistically embrace diversity?
Last November, Forbes published an article where a panel of human resources leaders highlighted the top skills recruiters are looking for in 2021. Out of this list, organizations should promote three specific skills daily for diversity and resilience.
The top skill is a growth mind-set (as opposed to a fixed mind-set). An easy way to identify if we have a fixed mind-set is to evaluate our self-talk: “I don't like to be challenged,” “I stick to what I know,” or “If I fail, my reputation is on the line.” Whereas, a growth mind-set will sound like: “Failure is an opportunity to grow,” “Any feedback is constructive,” or “The success of others inspires me.”
The second critical skill to nurture is continuous learning and curiosity before, during, and after crises. The COVID-19 crisis, in particular, has proven that we must demonstrate innovative problem-solving monthly, if not daily. That means we need to surround ourselves with real heterogeneity of thoughts. Security and resilience professionals need to get out of our usual circles, networks, and industries and sincerely seek to learn from others.
Finally, comfort with ambiguity is the third primary skill to stir up. As Jonni Redick, CEO of JLConsulting Solutions and a retired assistant chief for the California Highway Patrol, pointed out: "Contemporary leaders still struggle with the ability to shift their archetype and understand the need to be able to embrace change as a norm. Trusted leaders allow the conscious creation of new mind-sets and skills to invent new ways of doing business without becoming defensive. Understanding that our people will always be the most valuable asset, and when we overlook anyone, we overlook everyone."
Start-up owners and employees can relate to this one directly. Our brain seeks stability and predictability, even if we like to think that we adapt quickly and that we are agile. Acknowledging it is the first step toward a more flexible and resilient mind-set.
Alexandra Hoffmann is CEO of Alexandra Hoffmann Consulting (AHC), which helps businesses build resilience capabilities to quickly and efficiently respond to disruptive events. AHC is a woman-owned company that promotes diversity and blends complementary professional expertise, background, and experience through various partnerships. Thanks to a career with the French government and large international corporations, Hoffmann has a rich operational and multicultural experience base with strong business resilience expertise, boosting factors, and best practices to manage it.