Diversity and “inclusion” vs “exclusion” – MBA Learnings

I ordered a burger at a burger joint run by a crew completely who seemed to all be from the Philippines in San Francisco airport. At a time when it is hard for skilled immigrants to even enter the U.S., how did this happen?

Yet, I wasn’t surprised. I have seen this far too often by now. I’ve found a KFC in the English countryside that was run by a crew from mainland China, many McDonalds outlets in Europe run by Bangladeshis and Indians, etc. Why is it that these very distinct cultural groups form?

The reason, very simply put, is inclusion (hat tip to Prof Adam Waytz for sparking this thought in our Values Based Leadership class). As humans who make all these decisions around hiring, etc., we go a long way to bring in people we like. People we like often tend to be people like us. And, when we keep bringing in people like us, we then tend to create safe and inclusive echo chambers.

That’s why you see entire areas in metropolitan cities that are filled with a certain group of immigrants and, to bring in a popular example, you have corporate boards at most of the top 500 companies in the world filled with white males.

We’ve reached a point when there’s no doubt that diversity is great. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that teams with women outperform teams with men. If you’ve ever worked on a team with diverse points of view, this finding isn’t surprising. Making sure you have women, or Eskimos for that matter, seems like tackling a problem of such depth on the surface. However, surface diversity is a big first step to real diversity. And, yet, despite knowing this, problems with diversity still exist everywhere.

Why? Because we focus too much in exclusion. And, our solutions tend to either be creating diversity groups or putting in admission quotas. I feel we’re thinking about it wrong. These are quick fixes and presume the problem is an intentional exclusion problem. And, I think they will not work. Yes, you might have a bit of short term success, but, it will be fleeting because the diversity hires you bring in will not be set up to succeed.

My thesis is that the way to solve this is to focus on the people within the existing system and to help them become inclusive. This is a long and challenging process and is definitely not a quick fix. But, it is the only way you fix the real problem.

Now for a personal story – the last time I was in university, I built a 15 member team to work on a university version of Britain’s Got Talent. I intentionally went about putting together a multi-cultural team of 15 people from 6 countries (all from South East Asia as we were in Singapore). The final core team of 5 that became incredibly close, however, were all Indian. It doesn’t stop there – we were not only Indian, we all came from the same city and effectively spoke the same language and enjoyed the same kind of food. Was this a hiring problem? Absolutely not. It was a Rohan/retention problem (depending on your point of view) – I was still overly biased to be inclusive to people like me to create an environment for people different from me to succeed.

This is an interesting contrast to a team I’m working with now which is almost as diverse as it comes. The interesting note here is that I made little effort to ensure it was diverse – I actually began by speaking to my friends. What changed? Well, me. Many things have changed with time – most of all, it’s been the understanding that there are people with similar values all around the world and really embracing the idea that the world is my family. But, the real change is an understanding that while people might have similar value systems around the world, it takes a little longer to really understand where they’ve come from because you don’t quite have the same common knowledge base. And, trust flows from understanding which, in turn, flows from knowledge. So, it takes much longer (and requires more of an investment) to understand someone really different from you. It is, of course, completely worth the investment.

What does this all boil down to?

1. On a personal level, make the effort to really get to know and understand people who are different from you. Look around and check for what your friends look like. If your friends all look exactly like you whilst you are in a diverse environment, that should be a warning sign. This is much much much much more important if you are in a school of some sort as that’s the single best environment to make friends who’re different from you. It is much harder to find diverse friends at work.

2) On an organizational level, create an environment where the norm is to make the effort to really get to know people. This is hard to do and depends a lot on the culture you create. While it definitely relies on you making sure you have enough surface level diversity to start with, you need to work doubly hard to make sure that translates to real inclusion. You also need to make sure that the basic norms when working in teams in your organization involve leaders who build teams that trust each other. More on this in a different post.

There’s no easy solution to this, no secret sauce. Diversity is going to be a tough problem for us to solve because the real solution is difficult and requires a huge investment in the long term. Yet, it is the single biggest step we can take towards peace and understanding in what is an incredibly diverse, yet connected, world. We’re not going to get over differences in religion and caste and creed without wisdom. And, wisdom, like trust, comes from understanding.

The hardest part about thinking about and working on such topics is that, for very long periods of time, it will feel like you’re constantly banging your head on the proverbial brick wall. And, after feeling like you’ve not made progress, you inevitably begin to question whether it is all worth the effort.

That changes when you do break through the barrier, of course, because figuring this out for yourself, your organization, and your community will likely be the most impactful thing you’ll do.