A recent Harvard Business Review article claimed that the most often forgotten dimension of diversity is social class. While more obvious markers of diversity such as race and gender justifiably receive a great deal of focus in equity and inclusion initiatives, social class is seldom given much attention. Nevertheless, diversity, inclusion and belonging regarding social class is something that all business leaders need to address.
We all know that diversity is not a simple matter with a simple solution. If you Google the word, one of the first synonyms is “variety,” involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations etc. After reading the article in HBR regarding diverse hiring, we each realised that in all the diversity discussions we have been a part of, the focus has always been on gender and race, but not social background.
Business leaders often tout their elite university diplomas, and businesses may judge candidates, often subconsciously, based on the merits of their education. Yet, many visionaries do not have premier educations. Just as business savvy and leadership skills can’t be judged by someone’s race, ethnicity or gender, a candidate’s potential can’t be judged by whether they have attended an elite university.
It’s essential to explore and understand why the forgotten dimensions of diversity, particularly social class, should be addressed in diversity programs. Three decades of scientific research have repeatedly confirmed that organisations fare better when composed of diverse individuals from all walks of life. One reason for this is that businesses that prioritise diversity and inclusion attract better personnel from a wider pool of diverse candidates. Additionally, pro-social choices have become competitive differentiators in an age in which markets expect more from the businesses they buy from.
While the above reasons go some way towards explaining why social class diversity is simply good business, there is another business-critical reason: cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity is more than differences in ethnicity, gender or religious belief. It lies deeper, taking into account everything that informs an individual’s worldview. To be cognitively diverse is to see things differently from others. Substantial research indicates that cognitively diverse teams are better equipped to handle the emergence of new and complex problems, such as those that have emerged throughout the crises of the last year.
There is more to diversity than the factors we can most easily account for, and some of the less explicit factors that contribute to cognitive diversity include:
- Age: With experience often comes wisdom, and with youth may come fresh perspective unburdened by the weight of the past. Among the many advantages revealed in research is that working in a mixed-age team positively impacts employee motivation and workplace engagement.
- Social class: Socioeconomic background has an indelible impact upon the perspective an individual brings to the table. There is ample evidence to suggest that class mitigators are better suited to leadership positions than those born into a position of affluence. In addition to this, implicit hiring biases against people of lower social standing create cognitive homogeneity within an organisation—a critical disadvantage few firms will notice until it’s too late.
- Personality: While personality is not set in stone (contrary to popular belief, personality is often influenced by context), there’s no denying that different individuals have different ways of habitually behaving in the workplace depending on their temperament. A simple measure of personality is introversion/extraversion. Having people that deviate from one another in the realm of character ensures that a broad spectrum of positions is incorporated into the decision-making process.
- Life experience: The experiences individuals have had throughout their lives will inform their worldviews. Our circumstances shape us, our choices and our interpretation of all that happens to us. A broader base of accumulated experience across team members can help maintain perspective in challenging times. Small decisions often have outsized impacts. Any advantage that can be accrued in this area is worth pursuing.
The organisations that have thrived the most through the unique challenges presented by the pandemic are those with cognitively diverse personnel. Employees and managers who had prior experience collaborating remotely adapted more quickly to doing so on a full-time basis. This familiarity with and adaptability to various working environments is an example of cognitive diversity in action.
There is no doubt that organisations have made progress over the past 20 years in creating more diversity within their operations. However, as much as has been done, there is more to do. To build a truly cognitively diverse organisation requires that we look beyond the surface level markers that distinguish us from one another and instead look to find that which makes us see the world differently.
Diversity should bring diverse viewpoints to a scenario; it should show all the different sides of a cube. For example, a woman may base her decisions on different factors than a man; someone from Germany might argue differently to someone from Ireland. Likewise, someone from a wealthy family may have a different perspective than someone from a working-class family. For example, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn without health insurance. He saw first-hand the difficulties his father endured when he was very ill and did not have health insurance to cover his medical bills. Thus, Schultz kept this in mind at Starbucks and provided every employee, regardless of title, with health benefits. Had he grown up in a privileged family, he may have held a different perspective toward the value of health insurance.
There are many examples of companies taking innovative approaches to facilitate diversity in their organisations. One such example is that of a European retail giant, which in a bid to encourage greater age diversity in its workforce, opted against enforcing a retirement age in all the countries where it operates. The organization employs workers in their 70s, 80s and 90s across their various territories, which allows its stores and offices to benefit from the unique perspectives people of advanced years bring. Similarly, a major pharmaceutical company was recently named as a Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. This is due in large part to its advocacy and work to raise the bar on LGBTQIA+ inclusion across the pharma field.
Businesses that acknowledge the importance of making cognitive diversity a priority have a tremendous opportunity to grow and to lead. Cognitively diverse teams will continue to outperform their homogenous counterparts. Those that embrace this fact will be bolstered to weather future challenges and build highly competitive, valuable organisations.
About the Authors
Jon Chan is a Senior Managing Director within FTI Consulting’s Technology segment and is based in London. Jon creates innovative solutions for clients using a combination of off-the-shelf systems, and custom developed tooling to solve complex structured and unstructured data challenges.
Gráinne Bryan is a Managing Director in FTI Consulting’s Technology segment, serving as a leader in the Dublin office. She has worked in the legal industry for more than two decades.
Nina Mohadjer is a Senior Director in FTI Consulting’s Technology segment in Germany, and an expert in e-discovery and investigations.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals
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