Why Do Diversity Efforts Fail?

So, you’ve read the research and know that diverse teams perform better. You diligently hire for diversity, knowing that doing so will increase the intelligence quotient of your team and thus make your company more competitive and cutting-edge…right?

Well, not necessarily. If all you’ve done is hire for diversity and then sit back and wait for the magic to happen, you will probably be disappointed. Your team will fail to meet your expectations and you might even hear grumblings about how your diversity efforts were a mistake. And you might ask yourself, well, were they?

The Missing Piece

Short answer: no, of course not. But you need to foster one very important thing to tap into your diverse team’s talents: inclusion. Simply hiring for diversity is not sufficient. You need to make sure everyone feels like they belong, and promote a spirit of sharing that eradicates feelings of separation. It’s crucial to create an atmosphere in which all people feel valued and respected, and have access to the same opportunities. When this happens, people become more engaged, share more, and are more likely to help each other succeed. 

Wired for Bias

But this is easier said than done because humans are wired for bias, which, for better or for worse, exists to protect our self-interest. This frequently makes us blind to our own biases. That’s why, for example, if there is only one employee of a certain ethnic group at a company they are often treated as the “token” representative of that group, and judged against the stereotypes of the said group instead of as the person they really are.

There are many different kinds of biases. David Rock and Heidi Grant, researchers at the Neuroleadership Institute, have created the acronym “SEEDS” to help us remember some of the most common types that we often have to deal with at work:

Similarity bias: “People like me are better.”

Experience bias: “My perceptions are accurate.”

Expedience bias: “My pace is the best.”

Distance bias: “What is closer to me, is better.”

Safety bias: “Averting risk or loss for me is better.”

Due to these and other biases, it’s easy to judge others as “good” or “bad” and be blind to their wisdom, talent, and skills. Thus opportunities to collaborate, co-create, and innovate are constantly being missed. The first step to working with the reality of bias is to accept its presence. Once we become conscious of the way bias works, we have a responsibility to continually check ourselves for it and eradicate it when it surfaces.

Proactive Inclusiveness

In order to create a culture of belonging, begin with practicing inclusive behaviors that promote an attitude of “you are different like me” rather than “you are different from me.” A successful marketing campaign by the regional insurance company Pemco is good inspiration for this. They created a series of lovingly oddball northwestern profiles and used the slogan “We are different. A lot like you.”

Environments that encourage employees to challenge their biases must be deliberately constructed because challenging the status quo requires intention—or else it wouldn’t be the status quo!  In the companies we have consulted at, we have witnessed how the leadership has owned up to their role in developing the culture and taken conscious and consistent action to make it safe to explore what inclusiveness and diversity mean to the people in their organizations.

Inclusiveness develops the same way trust does: it takes intention, time, and shared experiences. However, you can make immediate progress by doing these two things: ask questions and listening. Ask “What do you think?” and then listen and reflect; do not defend and react. These simple actions will help you make great strides toward genuine inclusiveness.


Kristiina Hiukka’s consulting, coaching, facilitating and speaking engagements are a mix of her passions for Leadership, the Human Element in Innovation and Gender Intelligence in the context of Organizational Culture – and how these affect strategic decisions. She believes that the best innovation leadership is based on diversity of thought, and a balanced mix of positivity and productivity. Kristiina has founded and led two innovation summits (Women in Innovation Summit 2012 and Converge@Seattle Pacific Northwest Innovation Summit 2014) that convened business leaders, legislators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and experts to explore opportunities to transform the ways we live and work. A native of Finland, Kristiina has lived in Seattle for over 20 years and serves as Honorary Vice Consul of Finland for the State of Washington. Kristiina earned her M.A. from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. KristiinaHiukka.com , kristiina@kristiinahiukka.com @kristiinahiukka 

This blog post was first published as a WTIA Blog on March 9, 2017.

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